The Hair Metal Supremacy of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

Poison bassist Rikki Rockett laughs when he tells filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, “I’m in it for the money,” but Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, released 35 years ago this week, takes that notion seriously. As a follow-up to Spheeris’ influential 1981 punk rock doc The Decline of Western Civilization, The Metal Years may at first seem like a joke, with its parade of cartoonish hair-metal doofuses sharply contrasting the earnest punks of the earlier movie. But Spheeris pushes just as hard with these Sunset Strip sleazoids as she did with the counterculture rebels the first time around. 

It would be easy to assume that Rockett and his hair-metal peers have less to say than people like Exene Cervenka and Greg Ginn, but in many ways they have a clearer, more well-defined perspective. These guys drink and party and chase women, but they also possess supreme self-confidence and a single-minded focus on success. No one here scoffs at the idea of rock stardom or selling out. Some of Spheeris’ interview subjects, like Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, and members of Kiss and Aerosmith, are already incredibly famous, which lends a different perspective. There’s a template for struggling Los Angeles bands like London and Odin to follow, to rise to the level of their idols and influences.

Of course, London and Odin never rose to that level, and one of the funniest and most disturbing scenes in The Metal Years features the members of the latter sitting in a hot tub, surrounded by scantily clad women, asserting that suicide would be preferable to failure to achieve fame and success. It’s amusing when grizzled club owner Bill Gazzarri asserts that Odin is guaranteed to become the next big thing, but it’s less amusing when Odin singer Randy O follows that assertion by saying he plans to kill himself if Gazzarri doesn’t turn out to be right.

Almost all of Randy O’s peers share his level of faith in themselves, albeit without the suicidal alternative. They talk about their future plans to buy cars and houses, and Seduce lead singer Mark Andrews even mentions stocks, bonds, and a retirement plan. In a rapid-fire montage of unnamed interviewees, not a single one hesitates to answer that they’ll definitely find fame and success in music. For viewers who find everything about hair metal tacky and disingenuous, almost all of the subjects in The Metal Years might come off as insufferable, eagerly embracing soulless capitalism over artistic expression.

Spheeris seems to share some of that perspective, and she clearly felt more affinity with the punks depicted in the first and third movies of the Decline trilogy than with the metalheads. But part of what makes The Metal Years such an enduring document is how honest it is in its phoniness. These guys may all be posturing to some degree, but their posturing is a genuine expression of their desires and ambitions. Say what you will about the aesthetics of hair metal, but its practitioners have remained remarkably dedicated and consistent for the past three decades.

There are semi-apocryphal stories that the excesses depicted in The Metal Years led to the eventual downfall of hair metal as rock’s dominant subgenre, paving the way for grunge and alt-rock in the 1990s. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who enjoyed Bon Jovi and Def Leppard videos on MTV would be suddenly turned off by anything in The Metal Years, which would have fit in perfectly on that cable network. 

While hair metal did experience declining fortunes for much of the ’90s, its major practitioners never really went away, emerging even stronger in the age of reality TV and nostalgia tours. A Metal Years segment featuring Osbourne clumsily cooking breakfast is a microcosm of future mega-hit reality show The Osbournes. Poison’s Bret Michaels answering his first interview question by bragging about the size of his penis shows exactly the kind of guy who would go on to star in Rock of Love. Spheeris frames it all in a way that allows the scolds — and the punks — to judge these people, while allowing the fans and the marketing executives to embrace them.

There’s a dark side here, too, although it’s much brighter than the dark side in the other Decline movies. W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes gives a notorious interview on a chair floating in the middle of his pool, getting increasingly hammered and seemingly experiencing an existential crisis. “I don’t dig being the person I am,” he says, and even if parts of the scene were allegedly staged, that statement rings true. Casual misogyny abounds, and Spheeris’ questions about AIDS are mockingly dismissed. The (presumably hired) models in bed with Kiss’ Paul Stanley during his interview look slightly queasy to be involved at all.

Yet nearly everyone depicted here made it out of The Metal Years, and the metal years, alive and thriving. Chris Holmes is still touring the world with various bands. Odin never hit it big, but Randy O left music for a career in trucking. If Rikki Rockett was in it for the money, then he got everything he was after. Anyone can laugh at The Metal Years’ depiction of hair metal, but time has proven that hair metal got the last laugh.

“The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” is streaming on multiple ad-based streaming services.

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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