The Scintillating Sphere of Penelope Spheeris

Movies Features Penelope Spheeris
The Scintillating Sphere of Penelope Spheeris

Wayne’s World has officially endured as a ‘90s comedy classic 30 years after its theatrical release, even maintaining its status as the highest-grossing film ever spawned from an SNL skit. However, the film’s success proved to be a self-described curse for director Penelope Spheeris. Having previously worked in production with Lorne Michaels on SNL, she was hired for the Mike Myers and Dana Carvey comedy on what seemed to be nothing more than a whim. A long-time director inclined to take any paying gig that seemed up her alley, the critical and commercial triumph of Wayne’s World launched her into the mainstream—a concept Spheeris always seemed staunchly opposed to. While her directorial touch in the few comedy films she helmed for Hollywood is certainly perceptible, it’s clear she’s always calling back (or looking forward to) the documentary film trilogy that truly exemplifies her interest as an artist. First chronicling the feral L.A. punk scene via performances and interviews conducted between 1979 and 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) honestly and empathetically documents a movement that was totally reviled by the media and most “respectable” citizens during its heyday. The next two installments, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) and The Decline of Western Civilization III (1998) chart the rise of commercial decadence in rock music and the scrappy, desperate resurgence of punk among teen runaways—all while candidly reflecting (and dissecting) the strengths and shortcomings of whatever narrative film she’s tasked with directing in-between Decline films.

No parallel is more overt than the one between the first Decline film and Spheeris’ 1984 breakthrough narrative feature Suburbia. Much like the first installment in the documentary series, Suburbia includes live performances from L.A. punk bands, kids ripped from the mosh pits of this very scene, and a general sense of nihilism for the future. While Part I spotlights X, Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerk, Alice Bag Band and Fear, Suburbia similarly shoots real-life punk bands T.S.O.L. and The Vandals. Both films are unflinching looks at the adolescent malaise characteristic of this first wave of punk music out of L.A., with Suburbia channeling Spheeris’ documentary roots at any moment it can. While the first Decline film is a well-rounded depiction of a counterculture previously met by sensentialization and demonization (though Spheeris is also careful never to fully endorse the actions and lifestyles of these teens), Suburbia is singularly interested in the kids that are drawn to these scenes in the first place—even casting real-life punk teens in these roles, many of which Spheeris scouted at local gigs. Future rock star Flea even makes his way into the film, playing a young punk trying to tame feral dogs in a decrepit suburban development. The kids in Suburbia are so starved for social security that they each voluntarily brand their bodies with the letters T.R. (The Rejected), practically declaring their punk allegiance for life. Though the teen actors in the film are stiff in their delivery, they convey another semblance of realism that could never be captured by non-actors: Their eyes always express a rugged drive to survive.

Whether with actors or non-actors, Spheeris’ directorial command often evokes the most potent performances from the talent she works with. The Boys Next Door (1985) and Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) feature big names in starring roles (Charlie Sheen and Carrie Fisher, respectively). However, the actors are at distinct points in their careers which allows Spheeris to utilize their performances in ways that are innovative and boundary-pushing.

Sheen was just starting out in the industry, with The Boys Next Door being one of the first narrative features to platform the actor as a leading man. Spheeris cast him as a teenage serial killer in reluctant cahoots with his best friend from high school (Maxwell Caulfield), with a rippling current of shameful mutual desire often causing rifts between the two boys. At the time of shooting Hollywood Vice Squad, which was supposedly inspired by real case files from the dingiest corners of the city, Fisher was fresh out of rehab and practically blacklisted from Hollywood due to her history of addiction. Spheeris cheekily implements Fisher’s “bad girl” image by casting her as a sex worker.

Though neither of these scripts were penned by Spheeris, their fascination with the seedy underbelly of L.A. perfectly meshes with the director’s preoccupation with the city as both hostile to outsiders and a refuge for them. These ambiguous spaces are where she often makes her most profound statements concerning the complicated intricacies of a given community—an empty squat is both a sanctuary from family and a sitting target for bigots in Suburbia, a swanky L.A. apartment is cozy until two teenage renegades begin beating on its gay inhabitant.

Perhaps most emblematic of this liminal attitude is Dudes, Spheeris’ perfect marriage of existential punk rock dread and the myth of the L.A. dream. Though the film was written by Randall Jahnson, several hallmarks of Spheeris’ oeuvre are evident. She re-casts former collaborators Flea, Lee Ving and The Vandals in the film, with Flea playing one of a trio of young punk New Yorkers who decide on a whim to move to L.A. with a recent inheritance. John Cryer plays Grant, the ostensible ring leader, while Daniel Roebuck plays Biscuit, a former dog treat-chomper. When their best friend Milo (Flea) is murdered in the desert by a rogue gang’s leader (Ving), Grant and Biscuit take it upon themselves to bring his killer to justice—even though they can’t seem to catch one measly break along the way.

The spirit of punk is on full display here—the friends’ bold style, reckless abandon and recurring harassment—but so is the assertion that many folks well outside of metropolitan areas are perhaps better equipped for dealing with the true injustices of the world. The city-slickers are wildly unprepared for the brutality of broader America—clearly, the violence of boredom is no match for the violence often imposed by difference. The entire viewing experience is at once nail-biting and nauseating, arguably Spheeris’ bleakest film after Suburbia, though Dudes at least affords its audience with a relatively hopeful ending.

Ironically, this solidly punk film with a bittersweet conclusion signals Spheeris’ brief departure from exploring this particular subculture. Her next directorial effort after Dudes is The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, which finds the filmmaker pivoting to the heavy metal scene. While never veering into overt ridicule, the film is certainly an unflattering look at the decadence and egotism which permeated every iota of the heavy hair metal scene—a glimpse that’s staged and provided by the very performers themselves. All of the unknown young metalheads that scoff at the very idea that they might not end up being famous rock stars are as cringeworthy as the established artists who have requested Spheeris film them atop a plush bed surrounded by women clad only in lingerie. There’s an overwhelming pompousness to the movement that contradicts the self-effacing, dead-end attitude of punk rock—in fact, the very idea that wealth and fame are tangible possibilities for musicians is in itself a laughable conceit compared to the state of the bands in the first film. Sure, X and Black Flag may have found critical and commercial success after the release of the first film—which was shot the year ahead of X’s self-titled debut album and before Henry Rollins joined Black Flag as lead singer—but the ostentatious (and soulessly consumerist) nature of the hair metal scene can’t help but feel neutered in comparison to the give-no-fucks attitude toward success from Part I’s punk rockers.

Part II, while a departure from Spheeris’ interest in the punk music scene, is also what landed her the job directing Wayne’s World. The film bounces off of Part II specifically in its exploration of fame and creative control—Wayne (Myers) and Garth (Carvey) desperately want their public-access TV show to be their main sources of income, but once it is, it’s clear that the corporate demands of success aren’t something the duo is super well-suited for. Fun is poked at the incessant presence of product placement, as well as the sanitized nature of theme songs and filming from a swanky, well-lit studio. Though Spheeris once again wasn’t in charge of penning the script for Wayne’s World, the film ended up mirroring the director’s own tensions navigating the studio system. Always searching for a gig that paid fairly while bolstering her directorial reach, Spheeris accidentally stumbled on a gold mine—one she wasn’t prepared to reckon with. Yet despite the film’s overwhelming success, Spheeris was snubbed when considering directors for Wayne’s World 2, and as such realized that in order to keep moving forward in the industry, she was simply going to need to make whatever decent movies came her way. If they had any significant connection to her life and experiences, great—and even if they didn’t, Spheeris has enough of a grasp on realism to render even the most insane premises as richly realized portraits of disparate people.

Following the overwhelming appeal of Wayne’s World, Spheeris went on to direct a handful of studio comedies that were suddenly being offered to her. Though definitely not in Spheeris’ general sphere of interest, these films kept her afloat after an extended period of directorial precarity. The first of these comedies happens to be one Spheeris professed to having seen nearly every episode of on TV during her adolescence: The Beverly Hillbillies (1993). According to the director, the salary for this specific film was “humongous,” marking her first foray into the commercial Hollywood circuit after Wayne’s World. This would be followed by another beloved adaptation, 1994’s The Little Rascals, which was particularly challenging for the filmmaker due to the short attention spans of the young actors involved. She would also jump back into directing SNL cast members with Black Sheep, a 1996 political comedy starring Chris Farley and David Spade. Only The Little Rascals was co-written by Spheeris, though once again, the strength of her filmic voice supersedes any other creative intervention present in these movies. Performances by Dolly Parton in The Beverly Hillbillies and Mudhoney in Black Sheep cement the director’s ability to effortlessly weave musical performances into her films, even when bands are far from the focus of her projects. She doesn’t need to be 100% enmeshed in a scene—such as country or grunge—to understand its appeal and how to rhythmically implement these performances into any given plotline. Yet while Spheeris showcases her comedic chops while continuing to explore what interests her thematically—young outcasts, being on the road and L.A.—these studio films simply don’t pack the same punch as her earlier, punkier works.

Of course, nobody understands this better than Spheeris herself. In fact, she considers the next studio comedy she directed to have basically been the death knell of her career. Starring Marlon Wayans and David Spade, Senseless (1998) follows a financially strapped student (Wayans) who enrolls in a paid clinical trial for an experimental drug that ends up enhancing all of his senses. Finally possessing an edge over his white, affluent peers, he secretly uses his newfound advantage in order to pursue a prestigious placement within a financial firm, hoping that holding his own among Wall Street brokers will help solidify a prosperous career. While the premise seems unbearably goofy and a bit square for Spheeris’ taste, the director and her cast manage to make an otherwise subpar movie shine. Wayans’ comedic timing is impeccable, while Matthew Lillard—sporting a jingling Prince Albert piercing and hanging his house key off of his belly button ring—has a supporting role as the protagonist’s punk roommate. Senseless actually contains the shell of a heartfelt, hilarious film, but Spheeris explained that multiple rewrites killed most of the initial charm she saw in the original script:

They kept rewriting it and sending me pages the day before, and I kept saying, “Let me just shoot the original script I signed up to do.” They messed it up and then it didn’t do well, and then they bad-rapped me. So I had the Weinsteins bad-rapping me and I couldn’t get a job. By the time you get done dealing with that kind of thing, you kind of don’t want to be in the business anymore, and that’s where I was at.

Spheeris’ frustration with Senseless is palpable in the film, particularly due to the fact that it slyly promotes her then-forthcoming III installment of the Decline series. While the characters are flipping through channels in their run-down apartment, they stumble upon a short clip of a punk kid sporting a rainbow haircut giving a talking head interview. Those already familiar with the documentary series immediately recognize him as Squid, one of the third installment’s most memorable characters—in part because he was murdered during the filming of the documentary, with his suspected killer also being featured in III. Though audiences at the time probably had no idea that this snippet was an allusion to her return to the Decline series, let alone who the hell Squid was, this likely served as the one calculated “fuck you” Spheeris snuck into the film. Particularly because the original script was messed-up and muddled by constant rewrites, it was essential for Spheeris to signal that though this might be the end of her commercial career, it certainly wasn’t the conclusion of her broader cinematic spark.

Penelope Spheeris will long be heralded as the eminent anthropologist of alternative lifestyles. With rumblings of a fourth Decline installment somewhere on Spheeris’ backburner and a forthcoming book slated for publication, what’s certain is that 30 years after Wayne’s World, there’s a wealth of Spheeris content we must look back on and forward to. The way she deftly explores the nuance of counterculture (or even just individuals who don’t “fit in”) is full of compassion yet never blindly glorifying, making her films—particularly the Decline series—perfect capsules of (un)popular culture during specific periods of time. She’s been steadfast in her commitment to fairly depicting the communities that she explores, even turning down the opportunity to direct This Is Spinal Tap because she felt it was too mean-spirited toward the heavy metal scene she had recently tackled (and had grown to love) in Part II.

Spheeris is the perfect example of a working director who never puts aside her morals for a gig—even if an indiscriminate paycheck would easily alleviate financial stress and add more fodder to her resume. Though she’s directed a few more films since her third Decline doc, Spheeris has considered herself effectively excommunicated from Hollywood after her unpleasant experience with the Weinsteins. If there’s any justice in this world, we’ll be able to behold another project from this versatile creator in the near future. Lord knows it’s high time Penelope Spheeris receives her flowers, even if a few bootprints and cigarette butts find themselves among the foliage.

Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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