Christian Niedan’s Hollywood Interviews — Part Five: The Chronicler

by: Christian Niedan

Part five of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with director and documentarian Penelope Spheeris…

Personal life experience is a powerful creative element for documentary filmmakers because it influences whose stories they choose to tell. Those documentaries, in turn, have the power to influence and educate others in a deeply affecting way. This is the case with the works of filmmaker Penelope Spheeris. Best known for directing 1992’s Wayne’s World, Spheeris began her career in the 1970s, shooting short-form rock ‘n roll showcases of various bands, and was a pioneer of the music video format. In the 1980s, her first two (of three) long-form documentaries, titled The Decline of Western Civilization, chronicled moments and places of rock music youth culture in Los Angeles. Spheeris’ drive to shine a spotlight on the thriving Los Angeles rock ‘n roll scene had its motivating roots within her own turbulent youth — as she described to me during a 2011 interview for my film website, Camera In The Sun:

Penelope Spheeris: “Having a very, very difficult upbringing, and living in trailers, and having seven stepfathers and moving around all the time — I kind of turned to rock ‘n roll as a little comfort blanket, and it made me feel better to listen to music. And then, when I heard there was a film school at UCLA, I was studying the biological sciences at University of Irvine out in Orange County. I went, ‘Oh my God, there’s a place where you can go and learn how to make movies? That’s just crazy.’ I mean, I hadn’t ever heard of it before. So I went to UCLA film school, and right when I graduated, a friend of mine that I had met at a concert, Peter Philbin, called me up. He worked at CBS Records, and he goes, ‘Would you like to do a music video?’ And I said, ‘Well, what is that?’ And we’re talking 1974, something like that, and he said, ‘Well, we just figured out we don’t have to send these crazy bands all over the world, and have them throw mattresses out of the hotel rooms. We can just send a piece of film.’ So I started a company called Rock ‘n Reel, and I shot a lot of music videos, and I did a huge amount of sales presentations over at Warner Brothers Records. So I had a thorough and complete music love and background and experience in filmmaking before I did the first Decline, because I was such a music fan, and I was actually working in the business shooting music videos. And I often had to shoot bands I wasn’t into.”

“I was into The Screamers and The Weirdos and The Gears. I mean, when I was at Irvine, I saw Janis Joplin play. I remember standing by the stage looking at her feet going, ‘This bitch is barefoot.’ And I went to see Blue Cheer down on the pier over in Santa Monica at this club called The Cheetah. We would stand in line out there on the beach trying to get up onto the pier. This friend of mine named Sepp Donahower promoted, I think it was called Pinnacle, and there’s some very famous posters that John Van Hamersveld did of the Pinnacle shows. This was all going on at the same time as this hippie shit in San Francisco was happening. And I went over to the Shrine Auditorium and saw the Mothers of Invention. One night, this guitar player came on and had his back to the audience, and I was standing like ten feet away from him, spinning on acid or something. And I’m looking, and everyone’s going, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ And [Frank] Zappa’s up there, and all the Mothers are up there. Then he turned around, and it’s Eric Clapton. So you know, I was between the Cheetah and the Shrine and the Santa Monica Civic, all those shows. And I was always at the Troubadour, because my friend who hooked me up with the music video idea was at CBS Records, and he always got to go in for free because he was with a record company. So I was dirt poor back then, and he didn’t drink, but I did. So we not only got in free, but I got free drinks.”

With such widespread concert access, Spheeris directly experienced a variety of Los Angeles rock music scenes, including the punk movement. From December 1979 to May 1980, she chronicled seven punk rock bands (Black Flag, X, Fear, Circle Jerks, Germs, Catholic Discipline, and Alice Bag Band) for 1981’s first installment of The Decline of Western Civilization series. That film’s timing, scope, and quality in capturing a small-but-influential musical community has made it more than just another music documentary. To that end, in 2016 the Library of Congress inducted the first Decline into the National Film Registry — noting that “the work remains a bracing historical and musical record of [hard-core punk rock] culture, mixing outrageous performances and whirling mosh-pits with far more restrained interviews.” However, creating an indispensable cultural document about L.A. youth and their music was not something Spheeris had set out to do:

Penelope Spheeris: “It was some cosmic accident, because I didn’t plan it. But because I documented the punk scene here in L.A., it kind of came to define that teenage, early-20s generation perception of music and social change. And I was sort of possessed, as it were, when I was out there at a show. I would see people with cameras, and I would say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t film here, because I’m doing this movie.’ And they would go, ‘Oh, sorry,’ and put it away. And I felt like I’d been struck by lightning, and the clouds opened up, and God said, ‘You must do this movie.’ And you know, the thing is, there wasn’t a lot of documentation going on back then. And I think there’s a reason why so many different people from so many different walks of life remember it. I mean, my God, on this Project Five show I did, Jeanne Tripplehorn was sitting there as a doctor in her little outfit looking so straight you wouldn’t believe it, and she said to me, ‘My God! The Decline changed my life!’ And I hear that so many times from people. You expect it from some dude that’s all tattooed and wacked from crack, but you don’t expect it from the guy at the bank that recognizes your name when you go to make a deposit.”

“[Punk rock] broke down musical walls. There were no punk rock love songs. There were no punk rock guitar solos. It changed the form of the music, and it also changed the message in the music. It’s breaking down all those walls, but the other kind of wall it broke down was that sexism wall. All of a sudden, girls really were perceived as equal or superior. Girls were no longer in that cute Barbie doll mode. They were in Doc Martens and mohawks, you know, with their finger in the air. They didn’t have to be sweet and lovely anymore.”

“But if punk rock made a couple strides toward raising up the perception of women, then heavy metal made six strides backwards. And I guess we’re still trying to even it out here. When I did the second Decline, obviously those women just were ridiculous. And it’s funny, someone told me that Christina Applegate said that the way she fashioned her character on Married With Children was from that girl in The Decline Part II that said, ‘I’m gonna continue on with my actressing.”

Between shooting the first two Decline films (the second, The Metal Years, was released in 1988), Spheeris presented a group of L.A.’s transient punk rock-loving youths “squatting” together in her 1983 scripted film, Suburbia. The film’s narrative and visual aesthetic went on to influence the lifestyles and fashion of adolescents facing similar tough situations as the characters in the film:

Penelope Spheeris: “I am very fascinated by the idea that kids over the years have sort of imitated Suburbia. I made it up, that they went and lived in an abandoned house. It’s not that I knew any kids that were doing that. Yeah, I did know kids who were thrown out by their families, but nobody was squatting at that point that I knew of. It’s like the chicken and the egg here. Did Suburbia come first, and then they did it, or the other way around?”

What indisputably did come first was the inspiration for Suburbia’s setting, which Spheeris drew from the documentation efforts of television news — and crucial story details, which she gleaned from first-hand experience:

Penelope Spheeris: “I’m a chronic news watcher. I always watch the news. I’ve watched every episode of 60 Minutes my whole life. I put together a bunch of these news stories, and I heard about this area in Downey — we used to call it ‘Downer’ — where they’d forced everybody to move. They paid them very low dollars for their house, and took the rights, and boarded up all the houses, because they were gonna put a freeway in. And the legislation made it so that the freeway could not go in, so the houses just sat there for years. And the wild dogs that are in the movie were another story, where down in some other area of Orange County, which is where I’m from, there was a guard dog training school. They went out of business, so they just let the dogs loose, who were vicious.”

“When we had casting sessions, I went to people I knew that were in bands, and would say, ‘Could you ask your friends if they’d like to come in and read?’ I went mostly by just trying to cast by their look and the personality of the characters in the script. And for example, some of the stories, like the young girl that died and they took her back to her house, that actually happened to [Germs singer] Darby Crash’s brother — and so his mother lost two kids to drugs. He died, and they brought him back and put him in his mother, Faith Baker’s car. So that’s where that came from, but I changed it to a girl because I didn’t wanna hurt the family. I just took stories that I had heard about, and then cast kids that I thought would fit the characters.”

While life experience had well-prepared Spheeris to tell such rock-related stories, lack of engagement with other music genres produced creative blind spots — which explains her not utilizing a Decline film to chronicle the hip-hop acts that roared to prominence in L.A. and beyond by the end of the 1980s:

Penelope Spheeris: “I remember being on Hollywood Boulevard one day — and I can’t remember if it was Public Enemy or N.W.A. — one of those groups going down the Boulevard on a flatbed truck doing their rap songs with a big loudspeaker. That was kind of a trip. And I also remember being at a party one time, and some people said, ‘Let’s go down to this other party, because this new guy is down there.’ It was right in the middle of the punk rock movement, and so rap was just being born. And they go, ‘It’s this guy named Grandmaster Flash.’ So we went down there, and watched him do his spinning, and that was a pretty memorable night. But you know, because I was really more into punk, I spent my time there, and they were really kind of two different segments of the world. I remember though sitting at a table at Spago with Roger Corman and the producer of Suburbia. I said, ‘Roger, there’s this new music that’s just gonna take over the world, and it’s called rap.’ He goes, ‘Rap? How do you spell it.’ And I was offered at one point a million dollars to do a Decline movie called ‘The Rap Years,’ but I didn’t do it because, first of all, nobody else is gonna own the Decline movies. And second of all, was that I didn’t feel I could do it well. You know, I didn’t go to rap shows and throw myself at the foot of the stage like I did at punk rock shows. It didn’t hit me as viscerally as punk did.”

Author’s Note (Update): In March 2018, Spheeris presented 2K restorations of all three Decline documentaries at The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, Orange County. In advance of the two-night event, OC Weekly spoke with Spheeris, who summed up the specific aspect of the punk scene that inspired her to begin documenting it, and how that element evolved:

Spheeris had been in LA about a decade, witnessing the changing of the guard from the flower-power generation to the lost youth who saw no future. In what became known as the “slam pit” in front of punk-rock stages, another change happened as the audience of runaways, art students and pogoing nihilists were pushed aside by aggro infiltrators of the South Bay and Orange County coast. That violent action is what made Spheeris say, “Oh, man, we have to get this on film!”

As Spheeris recently told the Weekly, “I always had an affection for the beach kids [and] the surf and skate punks because I knew they were living the life I have lived in suburbia: Boring.”


Continue with Part Six: The Novelist!


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