The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
By Brett Ballard-Beach
June 21, 2012
Chris Holmes, guitarist for W.A.S.P, is interviewed while he floats on an inflatable lounge chair in a swimming pool. He is only heard from in brief sound bites during the first two-thirds of the 93 minute running time, but he becomes the key focus of the final half hour, the anti-antidote to the sobered-up veterans and chart-climbing newbies Spheeris focuses on elsewhere. Blitzed out of his mind and sucking down a nearly full bottle of vodka while on camera (he eventually just gives up and takes a bath in it) Holmes is beyond rock n roll stereotype or pathetic caricature. He is a Shakespearean tragedy writ small, filled with bottomless self-pity and myriad contradictions, unable to enjoy success because it has merely amplified all of his flaws. (This calls to mind a great quote from an Ebert review where he observes, “when you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat.”)
Spheeris saves the big reveal for one of the later clips, when she pulls back to show Holmes’ mother, sitting in a chair by the edge of the pool. (This of course begs the question of whether the musician is actually at his home or his parents’ and if he is still living with them). She seems equally mortified and cowed by her drunken offspring, although to be fair those are about two of the only logical responses. In Holmes’ defense, perhaps he started out the interview sober and Spheeris only chose to air the parts that came much much later, but in her questioning and in her presentation of material during the Q and A with him, and throughout the trilogy, she gives the impression of going out of her way to remain impartial, to get her subjects (particularly the teens) to open up.
The overriding debit that this results in, primarily in The Metal Years, is the unchecked misogyny to which Spheeris seems to be giving a pass. Half of the bands in the first film, and one in the third have a strong female presence, but the half-dozen bands profiled in Part II are exclusively male. And they are very very proud of their penises and their ability to use them. (How much of this is simply on- camera machismo and bluster remains questionable. For her part, Spheeris vouches that Stanley’s babe-covered bed was not a one-time incident or staged for the film).
Spheeris does take measures to address the (apparently) common practice of a struggling band finding a “sugar mama” to take them out to dinner, or to buy groceries. The dudes are balanced with a pair of groupies who unabashedly live for partying and sex, some unsigned female rockers who retort that they use guys just as easily as guys use them, and a female corrections officer who seems determined to embody all the clichés of authority figures cracking down on that “Satanic” metal music. But the boys’ club atmosphere - which is probably an accurate assessment of the Sunset Strip in ’87-88 - pervades, nowhere more so than in the sleazy strip show competition held by nightclub owner Bill Gazzari. Even if it can be held up as further evidence of the decadence of the era, The Metal Years wallows in this subplot to quickly diminishing returns (and clothing).
The video box cover for The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, shows a metal guitarist, head apparently caught in mid-bang, face obscured in shadow, with an epic mane of gorgeous curly hair cascading down past his shoulders. Thankfully, Spheeris includes the footage of Dave Mustaine playing from which this still was selected. And although they only appear in the final minutes of the film, and their song “In the Darkest Hour” is represented with more of a video performance piece than a raw live performance, Megadeth’s chops show up just about every other minute of concert footage in the film. Mustaine’s humorlessness is counterbalanced with the ferocity of his playing and the power of his band. More than any other of the acts profiled, Megadeth is able to let their music do the talking, instead of their cocks.
Next Chapter Two: This 1988 PG-release features one of the longest screen kisses in film history, clocking in at three minutes, delivered by the most unlikeliest of leading men.