Music docs are becoming a pervasive, tired genre, yet the 1988 film still feels unflinching, gripping, and fresh.
Whether they’re geniuses or tortured souls, musicians rank as some of the most compelling and natural subjects for documentaries — most of them are captivating, elusive performers who typically have an insightful or outrageous thought to share and will license their music for free (if a filmmaker is lucky). More importantly, watching musicians’ larger-than-life and meticulously constructed personas unfold on a big screen can force us to reflect on some basic tenets of human existence: performance, authenticity, power, and fabrication.
Filmmakers are finally beginning to fully grasp the allure of musicians, as evidenced by the sheer number of music docs — a genre currently undergoing a Golden Age — made in the past few years. Music docs headline notable film festivals, thrive on streaming services and are usually well-funded and well-distributed projects, all of which has prompted their evolution as one of the most ubiquitous, ever-expanding niches. Because of their massive and effortlessly attainable success as promotional devices, music docs have centered on nearly every band or music scene that has received any kind of following, a la Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of The Pants, and Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits.
While music docs are relatively easy to make, they aren’t without their challenges and cliches. All music documentaries should aim to transcend mere hagiography and chronicle a band or cultural moment in history, though this is becoming increasingly rare. Too many docs tell familiar stories and idealize their protagonists as unparalleled creative geniuses while glossing over the subjects’ sensibilities, faults, and drama — Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary are apt examples of this phenomenon, even in spite of their stunning appeal for fans. Like the majority of music docs, these films rely on gushing, grandiose testimonials from fellow performers, journalists, fans, and record producers to convey the musicians’ giftedness; this lack of idiosyncrasy is grading and weighs down the entire genre. Ultimately, most music docs feed into existing fandoms — they simply affirm the awesomeness of a certain band, musician, or scene. The music doc’s fan service, while meaningful to some or many, does not offer much value to the overarching pop culture world.
Recent films like What Happened, Miss Simone? and Amy have undermined the music documentary’s most flawed and glaring tropes — their overly polished tone and inability to provide some form of cultural relevance. One of the most memorable and successful subversions of the music doc, though, is Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.
Equal parts hysterical and downright sinister, The Metal Years is the riveting second installment of Spheeris’s acclaimed Decline trilogy comprising of Decline of Western Civilization, a raw examination of the early 1980s LA punk scene, The Metal Years, and Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a soul-crushing documentation of the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers in the 90s. Each film is memorable in their own right, but The Metal Years stands out in its depiction of one of rock n’ roll’s most fabled genres: heavy metal.
Focusing on the indulgent and polarizing LA heavy metal scene in the 1980s, The Metal Years is guaranteed to entertain metal fans and non-metal fans alike, and this is in large part due to the film’s unique ethnographic angle. Spheeris herself admits her anthropological filmmaking tendencies: “I’m interested in the music, but I’m more interested in human behavior.” As aforementioned, most music docs highlight the greatness of a singular band or musician, but The Metal Years is more interested in rendering a particular scene in its near entirety, featuring footage and interviews from established arena rockers (Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons from Kiss, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith), to more obscure groups (Odin, London, and Seduce), to unknown, aspiring rockers and fans. Chronicling the corrupting effects of both achieving and chasing rock stardom, the film showcases the intrigue and peculiarity of a music microculture, which is suitably evoked by the caption of the film’s poster — “It’s more than music…it’s a way of life.”
The outlandishness of the LA metal scene’s stars, fans, and aspiring stars surfaces within the film’s first few minutes, which are jam-packed with sleazy and eager interviewees sharing their opinions on girls, the energy of heavy metal, and their genitals, supplying plenty of amazing soundbites along the way (“I mean, it doesn’t matter what size your pencil is, it’s how you write your name” is a personal favorite). While interwoven with well-edited but interchangeable music performances, the film’s narrative is loosely organized around extensive interview sections based on themes like music, gender, sex, and dreams. Unlike most music docs, the interviews in The Metal Years don’t slow down the film’s pace or gloss over certain meaty topics — instead, they are the engaging, funny, and often poignant driving force of the film.
The unforgettably ridiculous interviews occur in a variety of locations, and we are offered plenty of perspectives on rock n’ roll, from jaded, aged rockers to scene regulars determined to achieve their dreams of rock stardom. Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy Kilmister represent the sole voices of reason in the film. In a leopard bathrobe, Osbourne reflects the downfalls of fame and laments the banality of sobriety while cooking bacon in a spacious kitchen, declaring, “We were screwin’ as many groupies as we could, smoking as much dope, getting out of it in general … basically just having a good time!” Meanwhile, Kilmister, while set against a scenic LA skyline, bluntly posits his stance on the current state rock n’ roll. When asked if he gets angry when bands emulate his style, he replies, “No, good luck to them. Maybe they’ll do something we can copy later,” and expresses uncompromising advice for bright-eyed, aspiring rockers: “If you think you got it, shove it out. Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.”
Osbourne and Kilmister’s astute and self-aware remarks starkly contrast with Steven Taylor, who boasts about how his millions of dollars “went up my [his] nose,” a smug Paul Stanely, who’s draped by three lingerie-wearing women in a bed, and the remainder of the interviewees, who are unguarded and blatantly silly to a fault. The members of London offer some of the more timeless quotes like “Our dicks get real hard for gold cards” and “What is a fucking rock star? Some dude that’s got more money than I do? I got a bigger dick than all of those dudes!” while Junior Ellefson of Megadeth warns audiences, “You gotta keep your wits about you and you got to watch your health to play this kind of music” with noticeably bloodshot eyes.
For all the fatuous remarks, an overriding sense of dread permeates most of the interviews. In one of the most startling scenes of the film, Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. drunkenly drifts on a swimming pool float while guzzling out of a vodka bottle. Clearly, on a self-destructive downward spiral, he shares vivid stories about groupies next to his own mother, who casts disapproving glances to her son and the camera. The bleakness of these scenes culminates when Holmes admits he’s a “full-blown alcoholic” and claims, “I don’t dig being the person I am.” These scenes restore the film’s humanity and keep it from becoming relentlessly mean-spirited and detached. For these brief moments, we stop gnawing our fists at wannabes with caked makeup and towering hairstyles to empathize with this man in pain.
Through the testimonies from Holmes, Osbourne, and Holmes, we see how rock n’ roll fame, in all of its hedonistic and decadent excess, paves the way for a descent into alcoholism, drug abuse, and general discontent. However, we also see the reverse side of the spectrum: the dangers of the pursuit for prosperity and fame, a theme scarcely explored with any nuance in music docs. Throughout the film, a number of naive and young interviewees articulate their grand ambitions — “I want to be extremely wealthy. I want to be remembered for the rest of my life, and for my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s lives” and “I don’t want to be like Jim Morrison, but I want to go down in history like that.” These aspirations are often paired with steadfast beliefs that the interviewees will “make it” and become world-renowned rock stars. Their motivations for fame, which they all think is inevitable, are muddled at best. When asked about what they would do if they fail, the aspiring musicians appear dumbfounded and refuse to seriously contemplate the question; they simply claim they will find a way with enough perseverance, with a few others tiptoeing around suicidal thoughts. With these crucial segments of the film, The Metal Years reflects how the quest for credibility remains an enduring influence on rock culture.
By devoting time to both the well-known rockers and the hopeful unknowns, Spheeris documents all the persons constituting the heavy metal genre, but she also illuminates a cautionary tale of stardom. The fallacy of the American Dream appeals to many of the interviewees, but hard work and ambition usually are not enough to achieve someone’s fantasies. Many are left with crushed dreams, especially in a scene as saturated as 1980s heavy metal. And once we see the dejected lives of Holmes and Osbourne, we learn that the crushing aftermath of stardom may not even be worth the effort put forth. The rock n’ roll lifestyle loses its allure; their fame fades; they are left aimless, disillusioned, and out of the limelight.
Rarely do we ever remember music documentaries for their directors. Musicians and interviewees typically forefront the music doc experience insofar as a directorial vision is absent or not noticed. However, with The Metal Years, Spheeris’ style and voice — literally and figuratively — is felt in every scene. While offscreen, Spheeris asks her subjects brusque and simplistic questions, which somehow provokes them to reveal their ambitions, inner turmoil, and outrageous stories.
The juxtapositions in the editing enhance her interactive mode of filmmaking, but it also reveals the contradictions of the talking heads and the heavy metal scene at large. After sleazy club owner Bill Gazzarri howls, “We’re missing a couple of asses up here,” Spheeris cuts to one of the objectified dancers earnestly declaring, “It’s a classy place.” During a montage about groupies, the viewer is initially presented with stories from Osbourne, Simmons, and Bobby Dall and Bret Michaels from Poison. The members of Poison begin their story, but Spheeris cuts to Osbourne, who starts another story, and then she makes a further cut to Simmons as he begins his story. The film then cuts back to Osbourne, who continues this story, before switching again to Poison and Simmons. This choppy editing sequence is frustrating for those attempting to follow the respective anecdotes, but Spheeris intentionally jumbles the stories to destabalize a linear narrative structure for each man’s account and imply that the specific details of their tales are irrelevant. As storytellers, these men have a performative aspect in the sharing of their thematically similar accounts, and by refusing them to give them a chance to cohesively tell their stories, Spheeris undermines the men’s authority as enablers of sexual exploit.
The Metal Years does not use interviews for authoritative historical testimonies to convey the distinct greatness of a music scene; rather, Spheeris has them become spaces for members of the scene to vulnerably present themselves. Naturally, this structure entails a variety of contrasting of opinions about the status of rock n’ roll, sexism, and authenticity, all the while fundamentally denying the notion of a definitive linear history for a particular music scene. Music docs often adopt a tidy, “rise and fall” historical narrative, but by providing a disordered snapshot of LA heavy metal, Spheeris subverts this trope — the mere suggestion that a music scene can have gaps, flaws, and contradictions is a surprisingly compelling idea, and one left thoroughly unexplored in the music documentary.
In an age where entertaining yet uninspired music docs are a dime a dozen, filmmakers should be looking to Spheeris and The Metal Years for inspiration. While rising above the music doc’s common hagiography, the ethnographic film documents a fascinating cultural moment in history in all of its excess, ambitions, and delusions. Its innovative use of diverse interviewees, complex themes, and Spheeris’s confrontational style all contribute to unique and visceral cinematic storytelling that still feels fresh after 30 years.