The third film in the great Spheeris trilogy shows just how far punk fell from the heights of Decline I.
Part III of the Decline series is arguably the most important of all the movies. Part II is no doubt entertaining, but has some questionable moments, and just kind of reinforces the ridiculousness of that era. Part I is legendary, enough has been written about the likes of X, The Germs, Black Flag, and the many other bands that Penelope Spheeris brilliantly captured.
But Part III, well it is a much more intimate look at the dark underbelly of punk. With minimal focus on the bands and more camera time dedicated to the gutter punk kids living on the streets. Let me be clear, I love this movie. And I love how it documented these kids who do their best to build a family of their own despite terrible circumstances, abuse at home, and many more roadblocks.
So what’s the problem? The problem is not really with the film, but with the cracks it exposed in punk culture and direction. This movie, more than anything, shows the huge discrepancy between the active punk bands, and the people who lived the punk lifestyle. A gap, a large gap, had really formed.
A lot of those kids featured in the film were not regularly attending punk shows. While they preached and practiced some wonderful examples of punk mentality, they showed that by the early ’90s punk had hit a fork in the road. Not in terms of music like the West Coast vs East Coast debate. Not hardcore vs post punk, reggae vs ska, or straight edge vs beer. But in terms of what punk actually stood for, the answer was getting dimmer by each passing second in the movie.
At the time the movie came out (I was 2 in 1998), punk had never been more popular or pop-adjacent. Green Day, The Offspring, Nirvana, and Rancid had sold millions. Yes, I consider Nirvana more punk than grunge. No doubt the kids in the Decline III much preferred Naked Aggression, Final Conflict, and Litmus Green to those “sellouts”. But one thing that struck me throughout the film was that she rarely discussed music with the kids on the streets. She talked about the “punk lifestyle”, but never the music. To some degree, this movie displayed that perhaps the look, the politics, and the mood of punk was more in fashion than the actual music. Punk was more lifestyle than music.
Now we can debate the merits of that in sociology classes and anthropology conferences all day, but man I wish she had pressed them on the musical aspect so much more. For all I know, those kids may have been hardcore fans of Black Flag, Naked Aggression, X, Bad Religion, or The Damned. However, the movie does a bit of a disservice in my opinion to the punk movement, reducing it to the story of street urchins. Those kids were certainly more than street urchins, and she did go to great lengths to make sure they were properly humanized as individuals, but where were the lines of questions for the bands about these kids? Do they come to shows? What do you think about them? Feel for them? I could go on.
Decline III is a great movie, Spheeris is a great director, but the whole movie draws a line between the musical movement, and the people living through that movement. Perhaps it was on purpose, but it comes at a disservice to both the musicians and the kids. Not to mention it didn’t cast Eyeball and The Resistance in a great light. It’s probably just because my hindsight is 20/20 as a 21st century punk fan, but a Decline IV would go a long way in today’s world.
I think the punk community now is much more similar to what it was in Decline I. Writers, poets, curious minds, and lots of musical crossover from hip hop, latin music, and metal that is not far off from the rockabilly, techno, and new wave themes displayed by X, Catholic Discipline, and the Alice Bag Band. If Decline I shows the birth of punk, Decline III sort of shows the slow decay of the genre. With all due respect to the bands featured in it, none approached the commercial or creative heights of the first group. Punk survived though, and continued on in many ways, shapes, and forms that a Decline IV could do a great job celebrating.
What West Coasters would fit in prominently in a new movie? I’d look to Destroy Boys, SWMRS, FIDLAR, The Regrettes, Beach Goons, and others. In fact, there’s probably a dozen better candidates I’ve never even heard of over here on the East Coast. It would be great to leave the Decline franchise with a better ending, showing the full circle journey punk has undergone since 1976.