Music for the Masses


Having toiled for the last decade in big-screen TV treatments and David Spade vehicles, Penelope Spheeris returns to her old moshing grounds with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III. If the first Decline (1981) contextualized L.A. punk as cause and effect of sociopolitical upheaval (its sequel, 1988’s The Metal Years, was a deadpan joke on big hair and rocker hubris), then III itemizes the failures of that revolt and marks punk as a refuge from a city that’s only gotten nastier and more economically bipolar. Spheeris gives every indication of having gotten too close to her material, but her film’s overall air of discombobulation is poignant in itself.

Her opening gambit—asking some fans queued up for a show about the first Decline—might seem needlessly self-reflexive, but Spheeris uses the original as an instant-cred all-access pass, and the responses she elicits set a gallows-humor tone that the movie only fitfully maintains (one boy says that in 1981, “I was an abortion that couldn’t get paid for”). At first, frenetic concert footage and offstage patter (notably from Resistance lead singer Eyeball, who provides the closest the film comes to a Darby Crash star turn) alternate with fan interviews, but the kids in the pit soon consume all of Spheeris’s attention.

L.A.’s current punk fans are teenagers who’ve been kicked out and kicked around. Kids like Troll, Filth, Why Me?, and Little Tommy the Queer get by on panhandling; many share a mordant wit and alcoholism in common, and most have been abused or neglected—which adds a frisson of black humor to one cop’s dubious claim that the LAPD is “trying to get these kids back in touch with their parents.” (The ghastly bracelet of self-inflicted cigarette burns on one girl’s arm suggests innumerable unspoken horrors.)

Spheeris doesn’t trust the immediate power of her raw material, so she throws all manner of sucker punches: keeping the camera tight on one boy, then pulling back abruptly to reveal his wheelchair; waiting until the last possible second to reveal the murder of another. She can’t stop asking the kids if they feel sad—the answer, almost invariably, is No, which implies that numbness is a fail-safe survival technique. (“It’s not really fun to be in reality,” one glassy-eyed girl says.) Spheeris’s approach sometimes smacks of tsk-tsk tourist pity, which might explain why Decline III never gets around to linking the euphoria of a good punk show with the oblivion sought after the lights go up.

From Show Boat to Viva Las Vegas, George Sidney was always fond of showbiz paeans to showbiz, and his extravaganza adaptation of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (in 3-D!) was a big hit in 1953. Breezing through backstage rivalries, bickerings, and rekindled romances during a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate boasts a modest share of amiable dance numbers—Tommy Rall gets a nice bit on a rooftop—as well as Ann Miller’s cheeky presence as a can-do gold digger (and unlikely Bianca stand-in). But Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel don’t work up friction so much as chafe against each other as Katherine and Petruchio, and once you’ve seen one chiffon scarf fly into your face (or rather, into your 3-D glasses), you’ve seen them all. As metamusicals go, Kiss Me Kate had nothing on Singin’ in the Rain.

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