Synopsis: Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler are among the Heavy Metal artists interviewed in The Decline of Western Civilization 2: The Metal Years. This follow-up to filmmaker Penelope Spheeris’ classic 1981 “punk” documentary The Decline of Western Civilization is a bit more reflective and word-dominated than its predecessor, but no less entertaining. One striking aspect of the film is its before-and-after comparisons of the impact of MTV. Heavy Metal newcomers tend to overpraise the cable service, while the “oldsters” implicitly decry the mainstreaming-and in some cases, homogenizing–of their best work. Interestingly, Spheeris’ own style has become more mainstream in the years since Decline of Western Civilization, thanks to experience gleaned on such dramatic films as Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) and Dudes (1987).
To start with, let me begin by saying that I’ve never seen the first part of this series, and one doesn’t need to: the first film was about the punk music scene and the people behind it. This one is about the hard rock/metal scene of the mid-to-late ‘80s. For good or bad, it’s a vastly different subject.
But is it a subject worth paying attention to?
Well, if you’re a fan of metal, it certainly is: it gives you a sense of what was going on back in the day, in the few years right before the dawn, before grunge took over and changed the musical landscape forever. If you’re an amateur sociologist, you might also appreciate seeing the youth of that era express their dreams and ambitions candidly, without any reserve (or shame, for that matter ;).
But it’s not a good documentary in the narrative sense. Whereas ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ took us through a concise tour of the roots and history of metal, this one only throws together interview bits with fans, aspiring musicians and well-known stars; it doesn’t attempt to take us on a particular journey – it’s purely an unfettered glimpse into a subculture (nota bene: I say “unfettered”, but there are indicators that the interviewer might have had a biased approach).
It’s an interesting piece, though, because of the mixed messages being sent by rock idols (ex: on the one hand advocating sobriety, on the other espousing ambivalence about it, and yet on another front, being completely lost in over-indulgence), the naked self-assurance of musicians we have never heard of (even twenty years later!), and the glimpse at societal disapproval with respect to this world and the people who inhabit it.
For those who have lived through these years, it’s a trip down memory lane (or should I call it “skid row”?). For others, it might simply be a headshaking look at silly sods being a little too cocky for their spandex britches.
Either way, it’s funny, sad, frustrating and absolutely worth a look – even if you sometimes feel compelled to reach for the mute button from time to time.