“It doesn’t matter—the size of your pencil. It’s how you write your name.”
Director Penelope Spheeris changes the aesthetic and to some extent the goals of her documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization with Part II: The Metal Years. Like its predecessor depicting the contemporary 1980 Los Angeles punk scene, we get a glimpse at obscure metal bands like Odin, London, and Seduce as they traverse the circuit with varying levels of success. Interwoven with them, however, are interviews of the genre’s mostly glam metal pioneers like Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith or Bret Michaels and Bobby Dall of Poison to provide a sort of before-and-after picture of what fame, money, and drugs do to those scooped up and spit out by the industry. Spheeris is still documenting an era, but this time it’s as a cautionary tale.
This installment isn’t as gritty or raw, but that’s an intentional maneuver since neither is the music. We’re talking bands putting scarves on microphones stands, make-up on their faces, and hairspray in two-foot tall hair. The artifice of the “show” becomes as important as the songs themselves with mosh pit mentality moving towards a tamer head-banging arena wherein a pristine, cultivated image replaces the blind machismo of the punks. Some embrace the look onstage (KISS), some utilize it for their lives off it (the countless number of fans/wannabe superstars talking to the camera against a monochrome wall), and others denounce it completely to focus attention solely on their technique as musicians (Megadeath). Spheeris shows each one of them in his/her respective element no matter how far-fetched it seems.
And it does get far-fetched—sometimes to the detriment of the film’s veracity with Spheeris later admitting Ozzy Osbourne shakily spilling orange juice onto his kitchen table was staged. Being 2016, however, we know Ozzy probably wasn’t far from doing the same without help. Where Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. fame is concerned, though, I hope Spheeris fabricated details because what she puts onscreen is a sad state of affairs. He’s obviously loaded floating in his pool with his mother sitting in a chair close-by. Holmes is evasive, avoiding tough questions by pouring vodka over his head while the camera constantly returns to Mom’s disapproving face. It’s no wonder people like to say this film killed glam and ushered in grunge. No success can ever be worth this aftermath.
Not everyone is so far-gone, though. Some admit to turning things around to keep the music alive. Tyler and Perry explain how bad it got; Alice Cooper and Ozzy admit getting help was a necessity to their lives and careers; and KISS’s Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley act as though their drug was always sex (the latter interviewed from above in a bed with three lingerie-clad sexpots). Lemmy from Motörhead has the most level head of all, deflecting role model status except for the fact that his making it means anyone can. But they all have hindsight: something Odin and his peers don’t. Seduce is so confident for success and so enamored by the ride that they probably wouldn’t listen to the warnings if Tyler told them in-person.
The footage of each live performance provides the type of electricity you know these guys crave—more so than Bill Gazzarri‘s exploitative “dancing” contests with skimpily clothed women hoping for a shot at one-thousand dollars and modeling exposure. The Poison boys are so casual and light-hearted that you wonder if things may not be too bad (Michaels even jokes how his band-mates saved their money while he blew his). But the rest plays like tragedy with the random interviewees so deluded towards what the future holds that you do wonder how many actually survived their inevitable failures. Suicidal thoughts are shared without the gravity that should come with them because these kids don’t understand the real world. Metal shows them it’s not necessary. Ozzy et al are proof.
I also wonder whether the approach Spheeris takes this time around is a direct result of Darby Crash‘s death weeks before her punk documentary featuring his struggle debuted. She depicted this movement, immortalizing the artists and capturing the excess and pain surviving within it entailed. Was she glorifying the life? No, but the fact it existed and how it was taking over youth culture was the general point of the film. Eight years later showed that doing the same could be irresponsible because of the risks associated with metal’s a highly sexualized genre. Her questions about mortality, AIDS, and overdose don’t stick to everyone she talks to because they think they’re invincible. Western Civilization was altered, but that didn’t mean kids had to die as a result.
Part II deliberately moves from wild children to introspective artists where the newcomers are concerned—removed from their idols speaking from home or stage. She takes pains to show the comparison/plagiarism in play and looks to go one step further into lifestyle pitfalls. It moves from people talking about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll to those craving the spotlight and money to those looking for credibility. Metal moves from glam to thrash in 90-minutes with every iota of danger and absurdity (a probation officer explains the “de-metaling” process she uses on kids) it possesses. Many do achieve their greatest fantasies yet many, many more have theirs crushed. The American Dream appeals to all, but perseverance and work ethic aren’t always enough. And every star does eventually fall.