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In the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) , first-time documentary filmmaker Penelope Spheeris focused her camera on the burgeoning punk rock/hardcore scene developing in Southern California in the early 1980's. At the time Spheeris was a punk rocker, having rejected the happy-go-luckiness of disco and the arena rock-and-roll dominating the airwaves, for a new musical movement. In contrast to the chart toppers of the day, punk rock was seen as an antithesis to the, "I like the nightlife, I like to boogie!" mindset. The music was simple, aggressive, rebellious, and political; its artists and fan base, the disaffected children of the Baby Boomer generation. Bewildered by middle class family values and Reagan-era conservatism, the punk rock bandwagon was filled with kids who often felt misunderstood by the government, the media, and their parents. Many would escape to concerts, and the shows in turn were cathartic a place for these angry youth to free their aggressions. Violence was usually an outcome; fights broke out frequently; drugs and alcohol a staple. The punks polished their boots and sharpened their liberty spikes nightly to proudly take on a world that they believed was leaving them behind.
In turn, Decline marvelously brought the spirit and attitude of punk front and center. Highlighting groups such as Fear, The Germs, and X, Spheeris seemed not like the outsider coming in but more like a fellow scenester documenting everything around her. In between the musical performances, Spheeris turned her attention to the show goers and fans, many of whom recalled feelings of rejection and abuse from authority figures and family members as a reason for turning to punk rock. In fact, in a recent interview with Spheeris, she describes her own personal upbringing as dark, saying, "...I was never a very sheltered child. I moved around from city to city, I had seven stepfathers, my mother was a drunk, and I used to get the shit kicked out of me." It was Spheeris's close relationship to the punk scene that gave Decline its authenticity. Therefore it only seems appropriate that she would go on to pen her first feature length film about punk just a few years later.
Suburbia (1984) was an attempt at fictionalizing the sights and sounds she documented in Decline; giving a storyboard and dialogue to the punk teenagers she met in her documentary. A young boy named Evan runs away from home, leaving behind his abusive, drunk, single mother who seems more concerned with happy hour than with raising her children. After he wanders into a punk rock show (where real punk band DI is performing), he is slipped some bad drugs by a fellow concert attendee, and is left out in the street after he's passed out. Soon he is adopted by Jack, a local punk affiliated with a group of homeless roustabouts squatting in an abandoned house near the freeway whom call themselves The Rejected ("TR" for short). All of the TR kids are fellow rejects, either escaping from disharmony or thrown out of their homes, and Evan immediately identifies with them. After officially joining their crew by burning "TR" into his arm, he begins to realize that the kids are carving out their own society outside of the mainstream they fled. Once a perfectly normal suburban home that has since been condemned, the house that The Rejected live in is littered with trash and graffiti; the rats, roaches, and wild dogs live alongside the humans.
In fact, the intermingling between the real world and the underworld created by TR plays itself out time and time again in Suburbia. The punks steal from the garages of affluent suburban homes for food; they walk the same streets and parking lots as their mainstream counterpart, and constantly find themselves under the scornful eyes of the "normies" around them. Adding to this tension are two proactive local men who call themselves Citizens Against Crime, a self-appointed mission to shut down The Rejected and "clean up their streets". Interestingly enough both Citizens are rejects themselves; they're laid-off auto workers who have chosen to act as the watchmen of their own suburban lifestyle. The only adult who seems to show any compassion for the kids is ironically an African American police officer, a "good guy" that also happens to be Jack's stepfather. As things between the Citizens and TR get increasingly muddled, he tries his best to keep The Rejected out of trouble, but finds the situation becoming more and more disparate.
While the TR kids do participate in random acts of petty vandalism and disorderly conduct from time to time to shake things up, it becomes clear that the punks actually do care for one another and are fiercely dedicated to preserving their way of life. This is most evident with Rejected kid Sheila, a runaway and recent addition to TR, who escaped years of sexual and physical abuse from her father. [SPOILER ALERT] After Sheila ends up dead from a tragic drug overdose, the TR kids mourn yet another loss from their group. But when they attempt to attend her funeral, Shelia's enraged father kicks them out even though he was the person that essentially forced Shelia underground in the first place. The members of TR call him out on his hypocrisy, and soon a huge fight breaks loose, with the kids feeling even more rejected than ever. The film's climax ends with another TR member dead, leaving the viewer wondering what the future holds for these disenfranchised kids.
Seen today, Suburbia serves as an amusing slice of punk nostalgia and has more in common with a juvenile delinquent movie from the 1950's than a contemporary slice of teenage angst. In fact, when B-movie pioneer Roger Corman agreed to produce the film he marketed it as an exploitation film, a "shocking look" at punk rock youth. And Suburbia does have its fair share of shocking images: the infamous Prom Dress Girl at the DI concert who has her clothes ripped off by a group of punks, the Citizens shooting at wild dogs, the punks throwing road kill into a suburban family's washer and dryer.
Suburbia is definitely a cautionary tale of what happens when you neglect your children. Adding to this is Spheeris's decision to cast real punks as actors (including Flea, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Wade Walston of U.S. Bombs). While this may have been to maintain "realness" and to keep with the "do it yourself' spirit of The Rejected kids and punk rock in general, most of the dialogue sounds stilted and forced due to a mostly non-professional cast, not unlike an after-school special from the same period. In fact, the acting is so bad in some of the more dramatic scenes that you may have to suppress your laughter. And some of the wardrobes and hairstyles will have you thankful that you stopped using egg whites to perfect your Mohawk. None the less, Suburbia is a fascinating and entertaining look back at the subculture, underground music, and the politics of youth in the 1980's from a director that had a true appreciation and fondness for her subject material.
Producer: Bert Dragin, Roger Corman
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Screenplay: Penelope Spheeris
Cinematography: Tim Suhrstedt
Film Editing: Ross Albert, Michael Oleksinki
Art Direction: Randy Moore
Music: Alex Gibson
Cast: Chris Pedersen (Jack Diddley), Bill Coyne (Evan Johnson), Jennifer Clay (Sheila), Timothy O'Brien (Skinner), Wade Walston (Joe Schmo), Flea (Razzle).
by Millie de Chirico
The scene in Suburbia where Razzle (played by Flea) shoots a cockroach cost $50, and was one of the most expensive in the film. The insect was specially trained and had its own handler.
The TR house was actually a group of condemned houses that were demolished to create the Century Freeway (I-105). The house was under eminent domain but the freeway wasn't finished for almost 15 years after the film. The freeway they eventually built was featured in Speed (1994) as the freeway under construction where the bus is seen racing over the unfinished chasm.
Suburbia is also known as Rebel Streets and The Wild Side.
Spheeris cast real life punk bands DI, The Vandals, and T.S.O.L. to play in Suburbia.
With the exception of Chris Pedersen (Jack) and Bill Coyne (Evan), none of The Rejected kids were professional actors.
Suburbia was the acting debut of Flea (from The Red Hot Chili Peppers). He went on to appear in other movies such as My Own Private Idaho (1991), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and The Big Lebowski (1998).
Spheeris claims that Suburbia was half paid for by Roger Corman and "some dude from Cleveland who had a furniture chain paid for the other half".
In the scene where the kids are driving around trying to find sod to lay out in front of the televisions, Jack mistakenly calls out to Flea (a.k.a., by his real name), to which Flea replies, "My name is Razzle, man."
In the scenes where the Citizens Against Crime are shooting the wild dogs, Spheeris used trip wire to make it seem like the dogs were being shot.
Compiled by Millie de Chirico
Commentary on Suburbia DVD by Penelope Spheeris
Filmmaker Richard Linklater also directed a movie about disaffected youth titled Suburbia in 1996, and the two movies are often mistaken as the same film.
Suburbia was Penelope Spheeris's debut narrative film.
Penelope Spheeris was born December 2nd, 1945 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the oldest of four children.
Her father was killed when she was seven and she was raised by her mother, whom she jokingly claims was, "a domestic violence pioneer".
When Spheeris grew up, she apparently traveled with a sideshow called the Magic Empire Carnival.
Spheeris herself had one child, whose father also died of a heroin overdose in 1974.
Spheeris was nominated "Most Likely to Succeed" by her high school classmates.
Spheeris worked as a waitress at The International House of Pancakes while attending film school at UCLA (she also studied psychobiology).
After leaving film school, Spheeris formed the first company in Los Angeles that produced music videos called "Rock and Reel". The company worked with various record labels including CBS and Warner Brothers.
Spheeris made two sequels to The Decline of Western Civilization, the second one, all about heavy metal, was entitled The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988).
Spheeris also directed a documentary on the Ozzfest tour called We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll (2001).
Spheeris reportedly turned down the chance to direct This Is Spinal Tap in 1984 because she claimed it was impossible to "make fun of heavy metal".
Spheeris spent her early days working with Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live. Spheeris remembers, "Lorne Michaels was sitting in my living room, reading the morning paper, and he said 'We should do a show in the late hour, based in New York, and have it produced live on camera'".
Spheeris produced short and feature length films directed by comic Albert Brooks, some of which were shown during the first season of SNL. She also helped produce Albert Brooks's first feature Real Life (1979).
Spheeris said that she turned down the opportunity to produce Private Benjamin (1980, with Goldie Hawn) to make The Decline of Western Civilization.
The Decline of Western Civilization was funded by a group of insurance salesmen (who owned a payroll service) that "wanted to make a porno movie". Spheeris suggested they "finance a punk rock movie, because it's the next best thing".
Spheeris told the salesmen that the documentary would cost $12,000 to shoot on Super 8. She then took the group of men, all still wearing their business suits, to a Germs concert.
In the end, Spheeris spent $120,000 filming The Decline of Western Civilization.
Penelope Spheeris claims to have a "cinematic double-life": on one hand making blockbusters like Wayne's World (1992) and The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and on the other, movies like Suburbia and her documentaries.
Spheeris mentions that Wayne's World allowed her to pay off her debts for her previous movies and documentaries.
Spheeris never did a movie about the grunge scene in Seattle because she claims "grunge was too self-pitying. I have this theory that you can either be pissed off or depressed but you can't be both at the same time....that music scene was filled with depression."
Spheeris says she "loves punk rock, but [she] also loves metal". She also says, "It's really hard to imagine there ever being the kind of impact there was when punk rock happened in the late 1970's."
Spheeris feels that she was typecast as a comedy director after shooting Wayne's World, despite the fact that she denies being one. Spheeris claims that "big studio comedies are such a headache".
Spheeris claims that she picks up bootlegs of her own work from flea markets or film traders and walks out with them without paying.
Spheeris also says she and Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten have talked about making a movie out of his book No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks.
"I was a good filmmaker...before I sold out." Penelope Spheeris
Spheeris was reportedly moved to tears at the end of her director's commentary on Suburbia. She had not seen the ending in years and was apparently still moved by it.
UK synth-pop group The Pet Shop Boys released a song called "Suburbia" in 1986, which they later stated was inspired by the film.
Compiled by Millie de Chirico
Commentary on Suburbia DVD by Penelope Spheeris
"Penelope Spheeris's Suburbia is a clear- eyed, compassionate melodrama...Her new film is probably the best teen-agers-in-revolt movie since Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge . It's far better than Francis Ford Coppola's Outsiders  and Rumble Fish (1983), having none of the ersatz poetry that was poured like maple syrup over the two Coppola movies. Suburbia is at its best when it is simply observing the randomness of the lives of its young people, watching them at aggressive play in a punk- rock club, stealing food from suburban freezers or just sitting around in the garbage of their beloved pad. The performances by the nonprofessional young actors are self-conscious and completely believable."
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times. Published: April 13, 1984
"Shows enormous empathy and sensitivity in capturing the angst and alienation of American youth, making it seem both rooted in a specific time and place and strangely timeless."
DVD review by Nathan Rabin, The Onion
"Combines intelligent social comment with the conventions of the teens-in-revolt exploiter to gripping effect."
- Time Out Film Guide
"A bracingly insightful study of youth as the tragic detritus of adult delusion, Suburbia is pretty much unbeatable, and pretty much unforgettable."
Ian Grey, City Paper
"Despite its visceral qualities (it opens with a rabid dog attacking a defenseless baby) the film now has a glow of roseate, nostalgic charm - partly a product of the winning incompetence of most of the performances. Sure, these hometown nihilists gob, puke and fight, but they're pretty sweet with it."
- Channel 4 Film
"This is both plotless and pointless, a movie as aimless and dull as the lives of its characters. In terms of the script, the acting, and the production values, this is barely better than basic backyard filmmaking."
- L.A. Morse, Video Trash Treasures
"Casting real-life street kids, Spheeris achieves the realism that Hollywood actors couldn't have offered, but the movie still suffers from amateur acting and shoddy production. However, the technical details aren't really the point for the D.I.Y. attitude of the intended audience....Suburbia ranks up there with Repo Man  as an enjoyable rebellious '80s teen movie."
- Andrea LeVasseur, All Movie Guide
"Uncompromising account of unlovely LA punks and unlovelier adults that makes something personal out of standard teen-rebellion material."- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide
Compiled by Millie de Chirico
Jack (Chris Pedersen): "My old man's gonna be back soon and if we're still here he's gonna sh*t Twinkies!"
Club Owner (Nicky Beat): "Give 'em the muzak."
Razzle (Flea): "Happy Easter, asshole."
Jack : "Where's that house, Flea?"
Razzle: Over there...Hey, my name's Razzle, man.
Joe Schmo (Wade Walston): "Later days."
Lead singer of DI: "Have some f*ckin' fun, move up!!"
Jack: "And don't kick my car, bitch!"
Compiled by Millie de Chirico