Blu-Ray Review: The Decline of Western Civlization Collection

Andrew reviews the Decline of Western Civilization Blu-Ray box set.

Opening the box for the newly restored Shout Factory blu-ray release of Penelope Spheeris' seminal punk rock, heavy metal and finally squatter culture documentary series, The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, I knew I was holding in my hands one of the most anticipated home video releases in recent memory.  After a chaotic Los Angeles release of the first film with riots breaking out in the theater, a letter from the chief of police effectively banned the film from being seen for years before finding a second home on the Z Channel.  Previously unavailable for decades outside of VHS and laserdisc editions due to ongoing rights entanglements and Spheeris' own brief disinterest in the material until daughter Anna Fox persuaded Spheeris to do a boxed set, all three films arrive in a nicely designed bookshelf box with 35mm film strip images of concert highlights.  Replete with a collectible booklet, plentiful extras per disc including a fourth blu-ray devoted entirely to extras, this is the most definitive release you could possibly have of this clandestine, much sought after documentary series.  That you can actually purchase this in stores now is a miracle all it's own and Shout Factor's fantastic boxed set edition will give die-hard fans more than their money's worth!  Easily one of the top home video releases of 2015!

The Video
The Decline of Western Civilization sports new 2K remasters personally supervised by Penelope Spheeris.  Given the unavailability of the series for so long and the often rough nature of the source, it's a given the image quality would range drastically from film to film.  The first film was shot in 1.33:1 on 16mm and is restored from a third generation copy as the original negative no longer exists.  Certain scenes with subtitles have a soft glow to them which looks to be a side effect of degradation through duplication over the years.  That said, all things considered the rough material looks great with moments of sharpness and fine grain.  Print damage remains on both the image and soundtrack with frequent blemishes yet with a healthy filmic grain and occasional sharpness.  Not exactly demo material compared to the sequels which open up to 1.85:1 widescreen and are presumably shot on 35mm considering the drastic jump in image quality.  Faring much better in terms of tonal range, color saturation and lighting, all around The Metal Years advances from the previously available VHS edition with consistent sharpness and fine grain.  The image is stable and mostly free of blemishes and scratches.  Vibrant color backdrops in between interviews are vivid and piercing when compared to the faded and mostly rough look of the first film.  Oddly, the third film is a slight step backwards visually.  Going back to the grungy aesthetic of the first film with punks interviewed against a white wall with a hanging ceiling light, the image is clean with heavy grain but soft on the sharpness.  Some scenes use the unusual aesthetic of reshooting previously shot footage projected through a CRT television unit, making certain scenes appear smeary with interlacing and ghosting.  Overall all three films have been mastered beautifully in high definition considering the unavailability of the source for so many years outside of bootlegging, Shout Factor's done a fine job!

The Audio
As with how it sounded upon initial release in mono, The Decline of Western Civilization arrives on home video in DTS-HD mono along with a newly created 5.1 surround mix for each film.  Beginning with the first film, in mono or 5.1, you more or less get the same listening experience.  Audio is rough and scratchy with pops and the 5.1 mix only adds a soft echo to the rear channels during dialogue.  The concert sequences have about as much range as the original mono source, which is fine despite the promise of blu-ray and prior remasters of concert documentaries.  Faring much better are the sequels which include both 2.0 stereo as well as 5.1 mixes.  The Metal Years in contrast provides a much fuller concert listening experience with surprising sonic range during guitar solos with rich and clear vocals.  Audio is also much cleaner with a true stereo sound field.  Equally impressive and germane to most concert video releases is the roar of the crown and there's a lot of it in The Metal Years.  As with the video for the third film, audio is decidedly a step backwards in terms of fidelity range, clarity and the quality of concert recordings.  While the concert numbers are definitely captured and rendered better sonically than the rough mono source of the first film, its somewhat weaker than the immediate impact of the bombastic The Metal Years.  Overall considering the range of all three films, the audio mastering by Shout Factory is pretty strong and should provide a pleasing listening experience.

The Extras
Each disc comes with its own set of additional material, including never before seen concert performances, new retrospective interviews and director as well as guest audio commentaries ranging from Dave Grohl to Nadir D'Priest.  The first disc sports an hour and a half of unseen footage including three unseen performances, newly reedited unused footage of the band X signing and burning a contract, a preexisting VHS sourced news report touring the Masque rock club, announcements by the band of the filmmakers' presence, additional interviews from Black Flag, more footage in Darby's apartment, a split-screen interview with the manager of Germs and outtakes from the light bulb kids interviews.

Despite Spheeris' own clear affection for her subjects on camera, seeing the footage unedited with Penelope speaking to them gives light to the bias often associated with the documentary editing process.  Notably in the black and white scenes with a hanging light bulb in the shot, many interviewees tend to come across as vacant when they're far more articulate in the unedited footage before being reduced to dumb catchphrases in the final product.  Seeing these unedited B rolls play out gives a texture to the first film not present in the original release where the finished piece tends to make people seem worse than they really are.  Surprisingly, the unedited B rolls are comparable in quality to the remastered film and despite blemishes and flags on the print, it's in far better shape than you'd expect.  On the one hand, you could regard Penelope's first entry in the Decline series as slanted but on the other hand you can't take away what comes from the subjects' mouths and no amount of additional leeway in the editing process will change that.  For instance on the commentary, Spheeris mentions some of the light bulb kids did in fact try to say sensationalist things for the sake of the camera whereas in the finish film that's all we get to see.  Yes it's evident that a lot was left out that might have colored the subjects in a more well-rounded light but even then with the knowledge you're still left with the same overall opinion of the first movie as an overview of the punk rock climate at the time.  Save for a moment in the commentary where Spheeris admits to post-production ADR during a fight between the band Fear and spectators, those looking for an explanation concerning the bias are going to come up short here.

Moving onto the second disc we get extended interviews with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Chris Holmes, Gene Simmons, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne and Paul Stanley.  The image quality of these interviews due to portions of the B roll being lost looks not much better than a degraded Super 8 source.  Sound quality is clear on these interviews despite the muddy looking image.  The third disc has behind-the-scenes footage of Penelope Spheeris making a third Decline film accompanied by a commentary by Spheeris, footage of the world premiere with Spheeris' introduction, Spheeris at Sundance and extended video interviews with Flea, Keith Morris, Leonard Phillips, Rick Wilder and a new set of light bulb kids.  The additional interviews and B roll appear to be VHS sourced but are in far better shape than those from the second film.

A fourth disc arrives in a slim blu-ray case with additional interviews, news coverage of the first film, more unused footage and discussion panels from 2003 and 2014 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Also included is a 37 page booklet with many photographs printed on high quality paper with a running essay on all three films.  The amount of bonus content almost exceeds the running time of the trilogy itself, providing fans with a cornucopia of Decline of Western Civilization bonus features.  Many retrospective interviews shed light on the impact of the series on the rock scenes, recollections of band members and several interviews with Spheeris breaking down the project as a whole.  Looking a bit like a rock star herself, Spheeris' memory and illustration of the movie is sharp and her commentary is always engaging.  The news reports are interesting with local viewers giving their thoughts on candid camera.  Lastly there's a trailer for Spheeris' unrelated punk teen rebellion drama Suburbia (not to be confused with Richard Linklater's film).  There's several years' worth of videos culled together for this set and the overall package is a bit like an enormous meal that just keeps coming and coming.  Pretty impressive stuff, Shout Factory!


-Andrew Kotwicki