Penelope Spheeris--along with her daughter--was in the house for a Midnites for Maniacs very special evening. I had first seen her way back in 2002 when her Ozzfest documentary WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL played at Indiefest. That was, believe it or not, my first time at a film festival. So in a way my film-watching career has been connected to Spheeris from the get go. So it was a treat to see her and hear the discussion. Particularly moving when Jesse Ficks credited Spheeris with saving his life through her movies (although we didn't get into personal details of why.) And equally moving when Penelope credited her daughter with saving her life, because she gave up drugs when she found out she was pregnant (after passing out on set and waking up to Richard Pryor saying, "This bitch is pregnant!" She's had an interesting life.)
Anyway, on to the films!
DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Opening with a montage of performers at the microphone reading her release statement, mocking it, and tearing it up, the audience is immediately thrown into the 1980 L.A. punk scene. With bands like Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X (some of those I heard of before, I swear.) We get the feel of the performances, the danger in the venues, the boozing and hard-living life of everybody involved. Remember back when movies could actually spark riots? Well, I'm not sure if you can blame the film itself or just the fact that screening it in L.A. got so many punks together that fights were bound to break out. But the riot at the L.A. premiere forced the chief of police to swear it would never be played in L.A. again. It recently got a 30th anniversary gala screening there. Stick to your artistic vision, kids.
WAYNE'S WORLD (1992): Still the best SNL movie ever. And the movie that transformed Spheeris from a struggling independent director (with some friends like Lorne Michaels) into a millionaire. And it's still fuckin' hilarious. And I don't think that's just because I was at the right age when it came out and I'm now watching it ironically. It still fucking works. Perhaps some of the meta-humor has aged, but the jokes about movie cliches and the plot about corrupting influences in the entertainment business are still perfectly relevant. Maybe even more so.
DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART 2: THE METAL YEARS (1988): Here's a little trivia for you, Penelope Spheeris turned down an opportunity to direct THIS IS SPINAL TAP to make this movie. She's a rock 'n roll gal, and rock music has been an important part of her life forever. So rather than make a movie mocking heavy metal music, she made one celebrating it. And in retrospect...it kinda looks like it's mocking it anyway. She starts in the same way, with people reading and trashing the release papers, and then we get to the acts--KISS, Alice Cooper, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeath...and Odin? Okay, a lot of those were the soundtrack to my youth, so I was much more interested than in part 1. But also...these acts were a lot sillier. With part 1, you felt there was something real in the anger in the music. With part 2, it's about sex, drugs (alcohol is a drug, right?) and rock 'n roll...in that order. Okay, put showmanship on top, because that's what this time in music was about--big, garish, outlandish stuff that you can look back at 27 years later and point and laugh. But also remember how important it was back at the time...and how we kids took it a lot more seriously than a lot of the artists. Damn, that was fun.
Total Running Time: 287 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,812
P.S. Back in 2002, Penelope also had the greatest Q and A exchange I've ever seen, but I didn't want to clutter the start of this post. WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL featured a sideshow act called The Reverend B. Dangerous, who is (or was) an Oakland-based performance artist who would do stuff like stick skewers though his cheeks. He was there for the Q and A as well. So a woman got up in the audience afterwards and praised Penelope and the film, and then said, "As a mother I have to ask--how do you avoid infection?" The thing is, nobody in the theater could tell she was addressing the Reverend B. Dangerous, everyone though she was addressing Penelope. So she answered, "How do I avoid infection? I don't sleep with the roadies!" Wise words from an incredible woman!