I have been lucky enough to catch The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years twice on the Sundance channel this month. And I was wily enough to record it the second time.
Won't someone please think of the children?
Actually, as the film demonstrates, many of the metal rockers are children themselves, with the libido of a teenager and the self-control of a toddler. Director Penelope Spheeris interviewed bands in the metal scene, from the legends to the bottom-feeders, focusing mostly on LA.
The movie kicks off with a salute to fans from Gene Simmons (and Simmons loves the fans, particularly when he's marketing some new piece of KISS-endorsed merchandise), then moves on to footage of said fans set to "Cradle to the Grave" by Motorhead. He seems like a nice enough guy, but I can't quite get past Lemmy's singing voice.
I would never say that in front of these folks, however. They're like the Bacchae with gimme caps.
Lemmy is one of the headliners interviewed in the film; his footage was obviously shot between around 3 and 7 a.m. on a hill overlooking LA, giving him a kind of wise-outsider feel, which works, since his observations are all fairly pragmatic and sensible. The interviews with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith remind me how much they know about music and its history, which makes crap like "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" even more unforgivable.
Poison gets a lot of interview time, but that's not surprising, considering they were the breakout stars of the moment and that they're mostly charming dudes. I can't shake the feeling that Bret Michaels really wants to get me into this car for no money down and a low-interest lease, but CC DeVille and Ricky Rockett are nothing short of adorable.
I've kept an eye out for CC ever since he uttered one of the greatest lines ever in the Poison Behind the Music episode, describing his descent into drug addiction: "It was the house of whores, and then it became the house of horrors," intoned in a raspy Lon Guyland accent. His sweetheart status was confirmed by his appearance on the most recent Surreal Life, where he was one of the most level-headed folks there, and the most accepting and affectionate toward transsexual Alexis Arquette. His comedic presence in this footage puts Rockett on my watch list, too.
Adorable. If they had a variety hour, I'd watch every week.
The superstar interviews are pretty interesting, but given the political climate of the era, the say-no-to-drugs message seems a little forced at times. Some of the most authentic footage is that of Ozzy Osbourne discussing the dangers and weariness of being on the road as he cooks breakfast (he stirs his bacon as it fries; what the hell, man?).
If the shot of him spilling his juice seems odd and out of place, there's a reason for that. Spheeris admitted in 1999 that she edited in unrelated footage of a spill. I just can't figure out why she did it. A coherent Ozzy is entertaining enough, plus it dents her credibility as a documentarian.
And speaking of credibility... of course Gene Simmons is in a lingerie shop. How else would you know it's him? Anywhere else, he'd just be a fortyish leather-clad cheeseball. Better still, though, is Paul Stanley:
No, really, all of his footage is like this, with a few occasional close-ups of him with the lead skank. It gets funnier every time you see it. Of course, a lack of shame or self-awareness is something of an asset in the metal scene, as these band names prove:
Of course you haven't heard of any of them. The most cringe-worthy footage comes from the obscure (and often rightfully so) bands that populated the club scene of the time.
Before you ask, this is the only appearance Guns N Roses makes in the movie (although a song the band did with Alice Cooper, "Under My Wheels," plays as the credits roll). Not long after this film was shot, GNR started getting national airplay, and I can't help but wonder if their subsequent superstardom contributed to the death of LA metal in the eyes of the music industry. Just think: we could've had years more of this!
The other band the metal redhead yells about, Faster Pussycat, has some live performances in the film. They're awful. Well, the competence of the musicians is fine, but the songs themselves are musically derivative and lyrically pathetic. "I got your number off the bathroom wall/And I decided it was time to make the call" -- no, seriously, that's part of the chorus.
This guy gets a lot of camera time, and he's not even the lead singer. Maybe the camera operator is fascinated by his resemblance to Patti Smith, or maybe it's the necklace of teeth he's wearing. Whose are they?
The lead singer for Lizzie Borden provokes an instant "Oh, bless his heart" from me: his hair, skin and teeth are all the same color. But when he says that the band plays 7 nights a week, it makes a little more sense. That punishing of a schedule would exhaust anyone to the point of comprehensive beigeness.
At least his stage outfits are somewhat less neutral. His name is allegedly Lizzie Borden as well, which I think would get extremely confusing at times. Speaking of unlikely names:
Now, I could be wrong, but something tells me those aren't the names on their birth certificates. Their band London is about as lame as Faster Pussycat, and I think even they realize how lame they are.
Yup, that's a Russian flag he's attempting to light (it's surprisingly difficult; I would've sprayed it with Aqua-Net before the show to render it cooperatively flammable myself). Samuel Johnson [dear Lord, I almost typed "Samuel L. Johnson"] famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. I think it can also be the last refuge of mediocrely-talented metal dudes desperate for audience approval. They follow this with a tedious ditty called "Russian Winter."
Like most of the other struggling bands, the dudes in London don't talk much about music; they talk about chicks. What unnerves me the most isn't all the random swapping of bodily fluids; it's that the lead dude talks about all the action he's getting, then mentions that he's homeless before the band takes off in a camper truck. Which means...
If this truck's a-rockin'... [shudder]
And who'd be likely to rock it? These girls, or their analogues:
I guess it's heartwarming to see that pretty much anybody could get laid in that scene. But less heartwarming is the division of gender roles when it comes to finances. None of the metal dudes interviewed had day jobs (well, one of them said he worked at Mrs. Fields Cookies at the mall, so that's something, I guess). But all of the metal women interviewed -- the musicians, the metal DJ, the hangers-on -- worked in offices. "We're professionals, who are even prominent in the business world, but we are also heavy metal rockers," says one of them, perhaps not aware that this only applies to her own gender. So it falls to the women to provide both booty and bacon:
I would say "you've got to pay to play, lay-tees," but I can't quite bring myself to classify sleeping with that dude as "playing."
One place where it seems everyone could be objectified was a club called Gazzarri's, which held an annual dance (and by "dance," I mean "stripping, pretty much") contest.
Okay, I think I might have found a couple of women in the film who didn't -- or possibly couldn't -- have jobs in a white-collar setting. Women such as this one:
But lest you think that Gazzarri's is all about female flesh, the owner is a big supporter of Odin, a local metal band. He's convinced they're going to be bigger than Led Zeppelin, and insists that "the singer's a very foxy guy!" The owner's failed attempt to get a chant of "O-din! O-din!" going after the dance contest is pretty cringeworthy. The performance itself isn't bad, but there's something...
... something not quite right...
...something I can't quite put my finger on--
Oh, yeah! Assless pants! Dude, you're playing to the wrong crowd in those.
That can't be comfortable.
After the performance, the band and assorted skanks discuss how long it will be before Odin gets its big break. Just a few months, they insist. But what if it never happens? The band members talk about how crushed they'd be, and the discussion turns to the thoughts of suicide the lead singer (I believe you've met his ass) has had and what a risk it is to put your entire identity into a band that might not ever make it big.
From here, the film takes a detour into the disturbing, as W.A.S.P. bassist Chris Holmes floats in his pool and discusses fame while his mom looks on. Holmes alternates between being flippant and forthright, talking about how he doesn't really like himself and drinks way too much to escape from feeling.
That's vodka, by the way.
And that's his mom. I can't imagine how painful it would be to watch your kid admit that he's trying to destroy himself. She doesn't say a word during Holmes' interview, but her face says a lot.
Spheeris decides to end the film with Megadeth, which doesn't make much sense to me. I mean, yeah, they're absolutely committed to their music, and seem to have avoided most of the pitfalls of the industry, but they don't exactly put on an exhilarating show. Besides, Dave Mustaine takes himself way too seriously and comes across as a major sourpuss with a metric tonne of Issues.
It's not a stellar way to end a film, and it feels like a coda, because it follows this bittersweet montage of the aspiring metalers' determined, ultimately fruitless hope.
That's how I would have ended it. Thank you, and have a good weekend, everybody!