Best Shots from Penelope Spheeris' Heavy Metal Documentary 'The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years'

The film is a documentary focusing on heavy metal in the late 80s and tackles topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, sex, masculinity, and of course, rock and roll. However, this didn’t feel like any documentary I’ve ever seen before.

Semoy Booker
Semoy Booker
August 3, 2021

Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) goes into depth about the livelihoods of the most famous rock stars, such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osborne, and Kiss, to name a few. The film is a documentary focusing on heavy metal in the late 80s and tackles topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, sex, masculinity, and of course, rock and roll. However, this didn’t feel like any documentary I’ve ever seen before. I saw the most beautiful shots, some of which were taken in the most bizarre settings. One of the things I love about this documentary is hearing Spheeris asking questions to the subjects. Sometimes in documentaries, questions are cut to make it look like the person is just pouring their heart out, when really someone was guiding them to answer the questions. I think Spheeris wanted her audience to know that they are watching a documentary, and hearing her interactions with the rock stars and heavy metal fans created an intimate space that you don’t see in documentaries.

4. Alice Cooper with the Noose                                                                                                                                                   

Alice Cooper holding a noose, by a gothic execution set

Alice Cooper

In this scene from The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, Spheeris asks members from different bands how they feel when other bands rip off one another’s music. We cut to Alice Cooper who is surrounded by a gothic execution set stage, holding on to a noose. He responds, “I could think of a few that I would like to have right about now, right about here’” as he yanks the noose. This scene of Alice Cooper shows how this documentary can be viewed as a comedy because of the honest testimonies and the anger some bands feel when their songs can no longer be considered original.

3. Gene Simmons in a Lingerie Store

Gene Simmons at a lingerie store looking at a woman in lingerie

Gene Simmons

I’m embarrassed to say it took me a while to know where Gene Simmons was in this scene, and when I realized where he was, a part of me was thinking, “Should this be happening right now? Can this be shown in theaters?” Luckily, the Hays Code got outlawed in 1968. I don’t know much about Gene Simmons, let alone Kiss, but it’s very peculiar to set an interview within a lingerie store and to have Simmons look at a woman’s butt when being asked questions. Whether you think this is disturbing or some sort of joke, this scene tells us a lot about how male rock stars view women. In a few testimonies, some of the heavy metal wannabes said they wanted to be rock stars to get girls, and some of the successful bands also said they did it for the girls. In a discussion about groupies, Simmons shares an experience when a fan once said hi to him and lifted her shirt to show him her breasts. In some ways, heavy metal can be compared to the horror genre because both genres eroticize and dehumanize women--The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years showcases this comparison perfectly. 

2. Paul Stanley and his Playmates

Paul Stanley lying on his bed with three half-naked models

Paul Stanley

Paul Stanley, another member from Kiss, also shared his love of women. Initially, I was uncomfortable watching scenes of the women lying half-naked around Stanley, but this crane shot of all four of them was done so masterfully that it didn’t feel like the camera was sexualizing the models in any way. One of the ways that the camera emphasizes how the women are Playboy models without sexualizing them is by not having any close-ups of their legs, breasts, or butts. These are the body parts that are most emphasized in the male gaze--however, Spheeris brings awareness that this is Paul Stanley’s fantasy. Throughout The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, we see women interacting with the male rock stars in a sexual way, and vice versa. The camera allows the audience to scrutinize the world of heavy metal that is full of sex and hegemonic masculinity. Despite the women being half-naked, this feels more sensual than sexual. Both Paul Stanley and the models have an intimate interaction with the camera. When Spheeris asks Stanley if he has ever fallen in love with one of his groupies, one of the models chuckles and he says “no”. The models aren’t offended by his answer because they don’t take it personally. It’s hard to know whether Spheeris wanted us to judge Paul Stanley lying in bed with Playboy models, or wants to convey to the audience a simple message--"you want to know the life of a rock star, here it is”.

1. The Heavy Metal Girl   

A mom and her young daughter in a pink backdrop with a light bulb

The little heavy metal girl and her mom

This is my absolute favorite shot of the film. This is an interview with a mom and her daughter who are heavy metal fans. Unlike Spheeris' first The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) that used a muted backdrop when interviewing fans of punk rock bands, the backdrops in Part II are more lively and colorful, embracing the neon colors of the 80s. One aspect I noticed is that in all of the interviews of regular people, the light bulb was always visible. I think that's another way of Spheeris letting you know that you're watching a documentary--the scene feels real and natural because of this detail. The little girl tells Spheeris she loves heavy metal and even attempted to do the rock sign with her fingers. This scene emphasizes that heavy metal has so much influence that it has reached all ages. This can also bring some optimism about heavy metal as many people associate it with devil-worshipping, when in reality it's just music--really loud music.