After a mostly disappointing series of recent mainstream films ("The Little Rascals," "Black Sheep"), director Penelope Spheeris gets back to her punk roots in the third "Decline of Western Civilization" docu. Film doesn't try to suggest it's portraying an original or distinctive musical scene -- nothing's heard here that the first chapter's weaker bands mightn't have done in 1979.

After a mostly disappointing series of recent mainstream films (“The Little Rascals,” “Black Sheep”), director Penelope Spheeris gets back to her punk roots in the third “Decline of Western Civilization” docu. Film doesn’t try to suggest it’s portraying an original or distinctive musical scene — nothing’s heard here that the first chapter’s weaker bands mightn’t have done in 1979. Instead, focus shifts to social observation as a punk aesthetic defines life for myriad homeless L.A. kids. Though at times more stylish than layered, this engaging, sometimes poignant, always energetic docu should echo predecessors’ success in initial playoff; more sober theme will lessen its viability as a long term rep staple.

Humorous opener informs us that most current fans of “real” punk bands — as opposed to “sellout” ones like Green Day, whose commercial success renders them suspect to more extreme devotees — weren’t yet born when Spheeris’ original feature came out. That film limned an L.A. club scene whose developing “hard-core” sound and ethos were moving well past mere imitation of U.K. punkers. (The follow-up in 1988, “The Metal Years,” portrayed by sarcastic contrast a new generation embracing precisely the glam rock poseur cliches punk had rejected.)

For better or worse, the musical development seemed to stop circa 1982. The four bands featured here offer pretty basic thrash, with lyrics venting a general political and personal disaffection in seldom intelligible scream-song (Spheeris often provides subtitle “translations”). But pic’s main interest is in the bands’ audience — which appears to be younger and more alienated than ever.

Most are homeless (the sole exception is an accident-paralyzed boy on disability), living on the streets or in abandoned building squats. An overwhelming number seem to have gotten there after escaping (or being escaped by) broken or physically abusive families. Drug use doesn’t seem to be as rampant as one might expect, but the level of cheerfully admitted, advanced alcoholism amongst this teenage to early 20s population is startling.

Spheeris’ affection for her subjects is clear, as is her rapport with them — which lets her get away with such old fart questions as, “How long since you had a bath?” and “What are you gonna be when you grow up?” Their answers are honest and often sharp, if predictably nihilistic as well (“Everything sucks,” etc.). That’s somewhat understandable, given the circumstances. Their alternative family interdependence is touching, albeit unstable.

Input from the huge scroll of interviewees is intercut in rapid fire fashion. While stimulating, this shorthand method’s nonstop high energy means pic has covered most bases before reaching the one hour point, making it seem somewhat episodic and repetitive. Spheeris tries to ratchet up the character involvement factor by dwelling late on one kid’s tragic death in a squat fire.

Though poignant, this episode would mean more if we hadn’t first encountered him just minutes before. While pic refuses to linger on specific participants (which would’ve heightened emotional impact), it also shuts out almost any larger context. The only “outsiders” we hear from are a very politic LAPD officer (though all the kids grumble about police harassment), a bemused club owner and one none too stable mom.

Tech package shows Spheeris is very much happiest in this milieu. A dynamic sequence near the beginning is mosh pit heaven (as Final Conflict performs onstage), peerlessly shot by Jamie Thompson and edited by Ann Trulove. Their contributions remain ace throughout. Dolby sound is loud and clear, save in a few rougher verite style scenes (where subtitles are again employed). Some of the latter are vid shot; a few brief segs are in B&W.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III

Production

A Spheeris Films Inc. production. Produced by Scott Wilder. Co-producer, Ross Albert. Directed by Penelope Spheeris.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm), Jamie Thompson; editor, Ann Trulove; music supervisor, Stephen E. Smith; sound (Dolby), Mike Chock; associate producer, Guy Louthan. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 1998. Running time: 86 min.

With

Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, the Resistance.

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