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Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” Essay


“The Decline of Western Civilization” is a documentary film by Penelope Spheeris that was first released in 1981. The documentary consists of three parts; the first part was released in 1981 while the second part debuted in 1988. The third and last part of the film was released in 1998. “The Decline of Western Civilization” is a documentary film that focuses on the evolution of the punk rock music genre as it changes from punk to heavy metal and then to gutter punk culture.

The documentary film explores the accompanying punk rock lifestyle as revealed by musicians, fans, and other music stakeholders. When “The Decline of Western Civilization” was first released in 1981, the then Los Angeles chief of police issued a directive that the film should not be screened within the city. The film was also blamed for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle among the youth.

Critics have praised the film for presenting a near-accurate biography of punk rock and rock stars. The generational impact of the documentary series is also well represented in the film. Nevertheless, “The Decline of Western Civilization” is a valuable source of historical accounts of punk rock, and it depicts the negative influence of this music genre on the youth in the 1980s and 1990s in Los Angeles.

The first part of the documentary features scenes with some of the most famous rock bands of the time. In most of these scenes, the filmmaker conducts interviews with renowned Los Angeles punk rock bands, the ‘punks’ or the fans of this genre, and the publishers of a popular punk rock magazine. One of the musicians who were featured in the film later died from a heroin overdose. The second part of the documentary depicted a period when heavy metal took precedence over the original punk rock.

The list of the musicians who are featured in this second part includes such names as Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper. The filmmaker also compares the musical situation of known bands with that of unknown ones. Also, the documentary ventures into the vanity and mediocrity that had become part of the music business.

The history of the Los Angeles Punk movement is well highlighted in Spheeris’ film. The film was first considered a ‘bad influence’ but gained an almost-cult-status later. According to Spheeris, her documentary intended to show the role that the punk movement was playing in both Los Angeles and the United States as a whole (MacLeod 132).

During the 1970s, punk rock had already been banned in most parts of Los Angeles. The antagonists of this music genre included administrative units, nightclubs, and music performance venues. However, by the time Spheeris was filming her documentary, the punk rock genre had only been a recognized music faction for approximately two years (The Decline of the Western Empire). The fast-rising punk rock movement had been becoming America’s unwanted addiction by the 1980s.

Consequently, the punk rock institution was considered in the same light as the war on drugs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the consumption of narcotics was high in most of the main entertainment capitals of the United States. Therefore, the contempt that accompanied the debut of punk rock was understandable.

Punk rock is one of the few music genres that have had a negative association with violence. Before punk rock, rock’n’roll was arguably the most popular music genre. Although rock’n’roll was associated with activist tendencies and rampant drug use, the genre was never fully associated with violence. In “The Decline of Western Civilization,” punk rock is depicted as a genre of music that is closely associated with violence and pointless riots. Some of the concerts that are featured in the film end up being riotous for no reason.

For instance, some concerts by the groups Catholic Discipline, Germs, X, and Fear are portrayed in the film as being riotous (The Decline of the Western Empire). The dominance of violence in any music genre came to a climax with the help of punk rock. Later on, the hip-hop genre was to adopt a similar violence-tag, albeit in the form of gun violence.

In subsequent years, the violence that was a characteristic of punk rock subsided mostly because the genre became ‘too commercial.’ For example, the first part of “The Decline of Western Civilization” features several riotous and violent scenes.

However, the second part of the documentary features excesses of drug use and degenerate lifestyles for both artists and fans. The shift from heavy violence to excesses in lifestyle as portrayed by the filmmaker is not specific to punk rock. Later on, the hip-hop genre underwent a similar transformation where violence was only used as a tool of popularizing the genre.

When “The Decline of Western Civilization” premiered in Los Angeles, the police department deployed a sizeable contingent of anti-riot police in anticipation of violence. The local and business communities within the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre were also in a panic mode during the premiere of this film (MacLeod 127).

In spite of all these measures, the premiere of the documentary film still caused some violent actions. Commercialization has been known to precipitate the tension surrounding some music genres as exemplified in this documentary. Commercialization requires mass markets and violent music concerts. Moreover, the ones depicted in Spheeris’ documentary might act as obstacles of this agenda.

The historical impacts of punk rock on the young generation are adequately brought to the fore in this documentary. In the second of the documentary, the ‘liveliness’ of the fans who attend punk rock concerts has changed completely. The filmmaker takes her time to explore the ‘new’ practices that are consequently associated with punk rock. Some of these practices are depicted through the scenes where rock stars are indulging in alcohol and drug abuse. Also, fans and artists engage in various forms of sexual exploitation actively.

These forms of lifestyles were the source of major concern for various Los Angeles stakeholders during the 1980s and 1990s. Feminists were particularly concerned with the genre’s treatment of women. For instance, in one scene a musician is quoted saying that “chicks don’t get in the (their) house unless they have a sack of groceries with them” (The Decline of the Western Empire). The scenario in which women were willing to be exploited by self-destructive men presented a new angle of exploitation to the feminists of the time.

“The Decline of Western Civilization” is a film with a rich historical significance. The film witnessed the birth and the ‘death’ of punk rock. However, the unpopular nature of the genre during its inception is a common phenomenon as it has happened to other music genres. The effect of the genre on the young generation of the time has also been identified as weak and short-lived when it is compared to other popular music genres.

Works Cited

MacLeod, Dewar. “Social Distortion: The Rise of Suburban Punk Rock in Los Angeles.” America Under Construction: Boundaries and Identities in Popular Culture 34.4 (1997): 123-148. Print.

The Decline of the Western Empire. Dir. Penelope Spheeris. Perf. Aerosmith, Kiss, and Ozzy Osbourne. New Line Cinema, 1981, Film.

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IvyPanda. (2020, April 8). Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-the-decline-of-western-civilization/

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"Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”." IvyPanda, 8 Apr. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-the-decline-of-western-civilization/.

1. IvyPanda. "Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”." April 8, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-the-decline-of-western-civilization/.


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IvyPanda. "Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”." April 8, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-the-decline-of-western-civilization/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”." April 8, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-the-decline-of-western-civilization/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”'. 8 April.

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