Penelope Spheeris

Image: Spheeris Films
Birth: December 2, 1945

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February 14, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Wayne’s World – the full length feature film adaptation of a popular recurring Saturday Night Live sketch about two teenaged hosts of a public access television show. To date Wayne’s World is the highest grossing of the films to be based on SNL sketches and has enjoyed high praise from critics as well.  Much of this praise is aimed at the film’s director Penelope Spheeris and her unique understanding of the world of American suburbia at the time.

While Wayne’s World was Spheeris’ first major studio project she was no stranger to the role of director and her vantage point on social outsiders has been carefully crafted in her independent films and documentary work.  Graduating from high school in Orange County California she was labeled as most likely to succeed by her peers and worked as waitress to pay for film school. Earning a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA she worked as a cinematographer and film editor before founding ROCK ‘N REEL, Los Angeles’ first production company to focus on making music videos. During the seventies and eighties she produced, directed, and edited videos for a variety of major bands including Megadeth, Fleetwood Mac, Foghat, and Alice Cooper.

This connection to the music world, especially LA’s punk rock scene, inspired her first documentary feature The Decline of Western Civilization. The film offers what has been called a shockingly intimate look at pioneering punk musicians like X, the Germs, the Circle Jerks, and Black Flag and included footage of slam dancing mosh pits that shocked the middle class and delighted the counter culture. While the film received critical praise it also instigated a riot requiring the LAPD to shut down Hollywood Boulevard when first screened in LA and the Chief of Police wrote a letter demanding the film not be shown again in the city.

Even with critical acclaim and an audience hungering for documentaries Spheeris had trouble getting The Decline of Western Civilization into theaters. Instead she continuing to explore the themes presented in the documentary by writing and directing the narrative film Suburbia.  Described as a disturbing and somewhat prophetic story of rebellious, homeless kids squatting in abandoned houses as they try to make new families and protect one another the film won first place at the Chicago Film Festival.

Spheeris follow up picture, an anti-violence film, The Boys Next Door starred Maxwell Caulfield and Charlie Sheen and presented the story of two young men and how their repressed anger changed them into walking time bombs. Described by a critic as an 80s teenage meltdown that is  a strikingly potent portrait of two teens succumbing to the effects of societal damnation the film follows the boys on a weekend road trip to LA that quickly devolves into mayhem and brutal murder.

In a similar vein Spheeris directed the 1987 film Dudes staring Lee Ving, Flea, John Cryer, and Daniel Roebuck in an adventure comedy film about punk kids from the city on a road trip across the country. Forced to set straight the death of friend after the group is attacked by bikers and the police refuse to care the punks discover a sense of values as they seek revenge.  With these films Spheeris explored the desolation of youth and the consequences of the American dream gone bad, depicting the stories of young people that have experienced alienation and traumatic pain.

Returning to documentary film making in 1988 Spheeris directed The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years described as a caustically hilarious look at the LA heavy metal scene. Featuring the music of mostly unknown metal bands commentaries from Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and others showcase the life of artists in LA metal scene in the late 1980s. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes display the hard partying of the musicians including rampant alcohol and drug use. Recently a VH1 documentary series has claimed that the film was partially responsible for the death of glam metal as fans were disgusted with the excess shown and turned away from the genre – claim that was also made in the autobiography of the lead singer of Megadeth.

With many projects, both narrative and documentary, under her belt Spheeris would direct her first major studio picture, Wayne’s World,  was released in 1992 as part of her work on the film she also created the music video for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody which garnered her a Grammy nomination.  A string of Hollywood big budget comedies including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, Black Sheep, and Senseless were commercially successful but made her feel like a sell out and led to her becoming “Hollywood-jaded.” Spheeris has stated that she was very frustrated at this point because she couldn’t get funding for the projects she wanted to make even after the success of Wayne’s World and that if she had been a man she would have been making the movies she wanted instead of struggling to get her work funded.

While making these box-office friendly movies she also returned again to her Decline series producing The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III focusing on the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers which according to her website eerily mirrors the events of her scripted film Suburbia. Filmed in 1997 the documentary’s subjects were not born with the first installment of the series was filmed and spends less time on music and more on the social issues of the so-called gutter punks – presented as products of a society truly in decline.

Traveling through 28 cities she and her crew documented OZZFEST and the reunion performances of the original Black Sabbath. Acting as a cinematographer as well as director on the project We Sold Our Souls for Rock n’ Roll she was able to showcase a unique view of life on the road. Directing the TV movie The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth of Enron in 2003 she also produced and directed the independent feature The Kid and I. In 2011 she directed a segment of the TV movie Five an anthology of five short films exploring the impact of breast cancer on people’s lives.

For many years Spheeris refused sell the rights to the Decline series and a combination of feeling like a sell-out again, a desire to look forward not back, and the understanding of the large amount of work the project would be kept her from working on a DVD release herself.  And while she was right about the huge amount of work the project would entail she trusted much of the editing to her daughter with the bulk of the process a box set of the films was released in 2015.

In December 2016 it was announced that The Decline of Western Civilization was one of 25 films selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Every year the registry selects titles for their cultural, historic, or aesthetic importance and typically preserve a copy of each film for posterity. Spheeris was astonished at the film’s inclusion but is glad that the registry is including the film in what she sees as a vital reference for upcoming generations of young people.  

Spheeris is working on the fourth installment of the Decline series but refuses to share any details about the subject of this newest documentary feature.

Written by Angela Goad


Penelope Spheeris: Filmography

IMDB: Penelope Spheeris

TCM: Penelope Spheeris

Wikipedia: list of Saturday night Live feature films

The Guardian: Penelope Spheeris: ‘I sold out and took the money’

Washington Post: National Film Registry honors ‘Breakfast Club,’ ‘Rushmore’ and other teen angst movies

A.V. Club: Penelope Spheeris

L.A. Times: Penelope Spheeris is relieved that her ‘Decline’ trilogy is finally out on DVD

Cool Ass Cinema: The Boys Next Door Review

Wikipedia: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

See Also:

Wayne’s World 25th Anniversary

Rotten Tomatoes: The Decline of Western Civilization

Facebook: Penelope Spheeris (Director)