The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
No matter how dated its subjects look, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years never gets old. Glam metal isn't particularly relevant to popular culture in 2010, but its throng of money-hungry, talent-starved wannabes certainly is. Watching Penelope Spheeris' superb documentary shows us how much and how little the music industry has changed. Though her subjects assume an anti-authority posture, all they really want is to be rich and famous rock stars. If American Idol had been on television in 1988, they would have been the first ones in line.
The film isn't just interviews with unknowns Spheeris also includes enlightening talks with Ozzy Osborne, Lemmy, Steven Tyler and other rock luminaries but I find those conversations the most fascinating. Some are from forgotten bands like Odin or Seduce. Others are groupies or fans who desperately want to be in rock bands themselves but haven't quite gotten there yet. Their answers to Spheeris' questions are so similar sometimes it's like they're reading from cue cards. No, they don't think of what they'll be doing in ten years if they don't make, because they will make it. In twenty years, they'll all probably be dead. They're not in it for the money, they're in it for the music. And the women. Metal's image is all about non-conformity. The Metal Years shows how all these non-conformists are all starting to look and sound exactly alike.
Selling rock and roll is as much selling the lifestyle as the music. So even as these rockers quickly grow bitter and jaded, they have to keep up the appearance that everything is going awesome and they wouldn't have it any other way. They claim to be having a great time, but desperation hangs in the air like stage fog. Some of these folks are hungry in more than just the figurative sense. A few even admit to being so broke that they date women for meals (you or I might call this transaction prostitution).
Spheeris is a fabulous interviewer. Her questions are blunt and direct; in one a particularly mesmerizing sequence she talks to W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes while he's drunk out of his mind, wading in a swimming pool. His mother a few feet away, he brags about groupie orgies. A few minutes later, with Spheeris pressing him, he acknowledges he's a full-fledged alcoholic, and as he pours bottles of vodka down his throat he confesses that he doesn't like himself very much and wouldn't mind if he was less of a rock star. Holmes hadn't learned the lessons that so many of the hard rock stars who came before him had: that the drugs of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" basically kill whatever joy you might derive from the other two. The juxtaposition of the rockers from various points on the timeline of pop music stardom creates this image of the music industry as a monster that needs to be fed: it chews up guys like Odin, then grinds on them until they look like Holmes. If they're lucky they get spit out and can clean up, and get on with things. If not, they get devoured.
If you've ever watched American Idol, that model should sound familiar. That show feasts on the dreams of young musicians who are exactly like the ones in The Metal Years in every way except for the size of their hairdos. As I'm writing this, my wife is watching the show in the other room as a whole raft of new young kids get swept up in the journey toward superstardom. Of course, along the way most of them will be tossed to the wayside and forgotten. If my kid ever came to me and told me they wanted to be on American Idol, I would sit them down in front of The Metal Years and make them watch. "It ain't all confetti, fireworks, and million dollar contracts, kiddo. Now go clean your room before you end up like this guy..."