UNDERGROUND USA: INDIE CINEMA OF THE 80s - The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (w/ Penelope Spheeris in person!)

Co-presented by The Director List
Live Set from DJ Domenico DeCaro of KXLU

Los Angeles, California: late 1980’s. Poison are at the top of their game, while Metallica is still circling the upper echelon of the music underground. The boys are dressed as girls, the dude from W.A.S.P. bloats in a vodka-doused pool, and freakin’ Lemmy seems like the most straight-laced lad of the bunch. American music has never seen a subculture quite like heavy metal in the 80’s, and American film has seen few documentarians as sensitive to outsiders as Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia, Wayne’s World). The Metal Years is a deep-dive into the scuzzled LA underground—the camera follows as bands distribute fliers on the Sunset Strip, future MTV video-jock Riki Rachtman leaves the air conditioning off in the Cathouse club so people are more likely to take off their clothes, and—of course—great bands shred. But this isn’t a film about glam metal: this is a film about musical generations and artistic approaches. Aerosmith ground heavy metal contextually within the history of jazz and blues; Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine contrasts the glossy, poppy glam scene with the political, hard-nosed world of thrash metal happening on the other end of the Strip. Spheeris, who grew up in a traveling carnival, gives every personality their due: every frame and composition is filled with emotion to match the outlook and attitude of the interviewee. The film feels all the more vital today for many reasons, including, in our current world that still hasn’t figured out how to talk about “girls in bands,” showing that the female metal musicians of the time were far more mature, hard-working artists than the boys. But Spheeris isn’t political; she’s too serious a filmmaker for that. Instead she is gentle, delivering multiple ideas within the space of a few quick cuts while allowing each persona to speak for themselves. In a way, Gene Simmons is right when he proclaims in the opening, “this movie is about groups, metal, guitars, girls, all that stuff,” but that barely scratches the surface of the underworld that The Metal Years excavates.

Dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1988, DCP 2k Restoration, 93 min.