Sit Back and Watch the Complete Decline of Western Civilization (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Are you ready to rock? 'Cause I am! I've got laserdiscs. I've got imports. I've got bootlegs. And I've got brand new blu-ray boxed sets. We are going to compare the living daylights out of The Decline Of Western Civilization Trilogy by Penelope Spheeris, which has just shocked the world by finally arriving in the form of legit, remastered special editions from Shout Factory. It really looked like this day would never come, but here it is.
The lyric subtitles are, as always, burnt in.
Now, you don't have to be into punk rock or heavy metal to appreciate these documentaries. And I say that with some degree of confidence because I'm not into that music and I'm still a fan. Certainly, a fan will get more out of the live performance footage; but these are some well-rounded, insightful and often humorous looks into youth culture and our relationship to celebrity culture. The films are rather different in tone, and not because Part 2 kind of switches genres on us. The first film is the most well-rounded, mixing a lot of rare concert footage with the punk rockers' home lives. The second film on one hand talks to rock stars as bigger pop celebrities, but then spends as much time interviewing fans, promoters and groupies. It's also the most tongue in cheek. Then the third is the most underground, exploring the lives of homeless punk fans who've followed the dream to its most bleak conclusion.
There's actually a rather compelling rise and fall arc across the three films that I only really picked up one when I re-watched all three as part of the new set rather than each film individually years apart. In that sense, it adopts a sort of Frederick Wiseman sensibility, taking a broader look at how humans fit into societal systems - in this case rock & roll - and eventually stumble out of them, rather than simply the more narrow focus on the particular subject of any one documentary that most non-Wiseman fans go in expecting. The films have extra layers of meaning when viewed in the larger context of the trilogy. But on the other hand, they're also just documentaries taking the longest, deepest looks into these music worlds you're likely to find. And all these extended interviews and extra performances on the new special editions only add to that. Yeah, you don't have to be a fan; but if you are one, there's an extra dimension of hitting pay-dirt here.

So, these films have been underground fan favorites for decades, but unbelievably, they'd never been officially released on DVD. Spheeris had a website up saying definitive DVDs were in the works, but after years and years of no updates, that began to look like a pipe dream. Consequently, these became some very heavily bootlegged films, and I've still got my old bootleg DVD-Rs right here. I've also got the original laserdisc of the first film from Image Entertainment (the only one of the three to be issued on laserdisc), which grew into a bit of a collector's item as, again, no DVDs ever surfaced. Well, technically, one DVD did surface. An apparently legit release of Part 2 (which rose is popularity after a very long and popular run on IFC) came out in Thailand. I've got that, too; and I actually did a full-length post about it, which you can read here, if you want to know more of that little disc's story. But it's all been finally and thankfully rendered obsolete by Shout Factory's definitive new 4 blu-ray disc set of the entire trilogy.
bootleg top; Image's laserdisc middle and Shout's blu bottom.
So one interesting thing about this new set is seeing what the aspect ratios were going to be. The first one's only been seen in fullscreen 1.33:1, and that seems to be how Shout's kept it, though the framing is just a smidgen different, with a sliver more on top and less on the bottom in the shots above. It's an interesting progression in quality from top to bottom. You can see how much clearer the laserdisc is than the bootleg, but the new 2k scan from Shout's print has obviously reached new heights. The film has always been a soft, very grainy, 16mm film, so this was never going to look like the next Avengers movie blu-ray. But the image is still much more vivid (though, to be fair, the laserdisc was always a little faded, that was its own flaw), clear and natural than we've ever seen before. It's a dramatically superior viewing experience.
bootleg top; Onpa's DVD middle and Shout's blu bottom.
Another very distinct progression in quality from top to bottom for The Heavy Metal Years. The DVD was a nice step up from the old bootleg, but wow the blu! Also, nice watermark, bootleggers - I wonder where you lifted your transfer from? Of course, the the first thing you'll notice after the huge leap in detail and clarity in the blu's transfer, which is far from the soft, grainy image of the first film; is the shift in aspect ratio. The boot and DVD are both fullscreen, where the blu-ray is matted down to 1.78:1 widescreen. The previous versions have a lot more info on the top and bottom. There's really no gain on the sides, it's just a question of framing this to its proper OAR, which is always the most important and correct thing to do, of course. There's also a surprisingly much cooler color timing throughout the new blu, as opposed to the warmer look we've been used to. Still, if you're a super serious, die-hard fan of this film, I could see hanging onto the import DVD (in addition to, not instead of) for the full-screen variant; but otherwise you really can't make a case for anything other than this massively improved new 2k transfer.
bootleg on top; Shout's blu on bottom.
Part 3's picture quality is a little tougher to get a handle on, as it's comprised of footage from clearly a number of different cameras and types of footage. Some is very grainy and looks like the original footage, some is cleaner, some looks like it was shot on some kind of tape with vertical lines running through it, and a few bits are even in black and white. You actually noticed the shift in stock less in the old bootleg, because the picture quality was so terrible. That low quality was all we had at the time, horizontally stretched and over-cropped to a bizarre non-anamorphic ratio of 2.02:1; so this third blu is a real revelation. Finally a version of this movie you can watch with somebody else without having to apologize for how it's going to look first.
And are there any extras? Hoo-boy! You're going to be watching this set for the next two weeks if you pick this up. Even if you somehow were saying to yourself, I'm happy just hanging onto my bootlegs despite the incredible leaps in image quality displayed above, the extras will surely convince you to replace. Let's start out with two audio commentaries on the first film, one by Spheeris and one by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Then there's about ten minutes worth of deleted scenes and about 15 minutes of additional musical performances by Fear, The Germs and The Gears. Then there's about 75(!) minutes of extended interviews. Oh, and there's a brief clip of Spheeris on The Henry Rollins show, plus a trailer and announcements. That's just disc 1.

Onto film 2, there's including another audio commentary, this time with N'Adir Priest of the band London and of course Penelope Spheeris. And there's over two hours(!) of extended interviews, with seven of the different bands seen in the film. Sadly, the original footage of this has been lost, so we've only got it in soft, muddy video tape footage; but you'll still want to watch it all. The only other extra here is the theatrical trailer, despite a listing for "Tawn Mastrey interviews Penelope Spheeris," on the case. But not to worry, that turns up on the bonus disc - Yes, there's a fourth bonus blu-ray as well, we've yet to come to! Meanwhile, nothing in the past, like the laserdisc or import DVD, ever had anything.
Part 3 doesn't have a commentary, but does have have about 45 minutes worth of extended interviews with the musicians, a ten minute behind-the-scenes feature, a brief intro, a six minute interview with Spheeris, a 20 minute panel at the LA County Museum of Art on Decline Parts 1 & 3, and a very short video clip called Gutterpunks (pretty much the only extra in this whole, fascinating set I'd recommend skipping). That's still enough extras to add up to a whole second movie's worth.

And then there's the bonus disc, which is also a blu-ray, so we can have this stuff in HD, too. The biggest feature here has to be the roughly 80 minutes worth of additional extended interviews from Decline 2. This is in addition to all the stuff already on disc 2 - jeez louise! Then there's seven featurettes and interviews on the different films in the trilogy, including the LA County Museum of Art panel for Decline Part 2, which was conspicuously absent on disc 3, and the missing Tawn Mastrey interview listed on the back of disc 2. It is a massive, truly impressive collection presented in this set.
There's also a trailer for Spheeris's other punk rock film, the fictional Suburbia. And this set comes with a really nice and glossy 37-page booklet on the series. The packaging is perfect, with four blu-ray cases (three standard and one slim) and the booklet snugly fit into a very strong box. All three films are given DTS HD stereo and 5.1 audio tracks, which is great because sound is obviously important for a musical documentary. Really, this set is like a fantasy everything-you-could-have-ever-wanted collection to the point of bordering on overload. We've gone from thinking we'll never see even a legit bare-bones DVD to this. In short, it's awesome.

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