FILM CRITICS have been spending a fair amount of time lately marveling at the trajectory of directors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler, who started off making modest, personal films—Waititi with What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Coogler with Fruitvale Station and Creed—before getting tapped by Marvel to helm superhero blockbusters. (Waititi is helming the next Thor, while Coogler will be behind Black Panther.) As strange as those transitions might seem, the precedent for indie auteurs jumping into the mainstream was already set by directors like Penelope Spheeris.
Long before the now-70-year-old filmmaker took the reins of big-ticket Hollywood comedies like Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Black Sheep, she was known for much grittier fare. After making her own short films and helping her friend Albert Brooks produce short segments for the early years of Saturday Night Live—and his big screen directorial debut Real Life—Spheeris broke into the popular consciousness via her 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization.
A snapshot of the early LA punk scene, the film continues to have an immediate appeal thanks to thrilling performance footage that features seminal acts like Black Flag, the Germs, and X when they were in their prime. But the most affecting moments come from the interviews Spheeris conducted with punk fans and catching the musicians in their unguarded moments offstage. Cynicism, desperation, and disaffection drew both artists and audiences together into a strange, extended family that helped replace the often broken homes they left behind.
Through the ’80s, much of Spheeris’ work followed a similar thread as she revealed the often-ugly underbelly of her native Los Angeles. But as with the first Decline film, there was a note of tenderness to even the most lurid of stories, like The Boys Next Door, her 1985 good-kids-gone-bad picture co-starring Charlie Sheen. Her empathy for the plight of the young people in her films always shines through.
The movies where that understanding beams the brightest are the two cult favorites screening this weekend at the Hollywood: 1983’s Suburbia and 1987’s Dudes. The former is particularly heartbreaking. The film centers on a group of young punks (played primarily by non-actors), all of whom left dysfunctional households to squat together in an abandoned house on the outskirts of Los Angeles County. There’s plenty of drama to be found as the kids square off against a couple of gun-toting rednecks and piss off the stodgy suburbanites around them. It’s the moments of camaraderie and shared pain, though, that rescue Suburbia from being pure exploitation.
Dudes is a more curious case: The punks vs. rednecks dynamic is still central to the film, but it’s worked into Spheeris’ attempt to make a modern-day revenge western à la The Searchers. Yet in spite of its truly bizarre dream sequences and the weird romance that blooms between the spiky-haired Grant (a post-Pretty in Pink Jon Cryer) and a divorcée who runs a service station (Catherine Mary Stewart), the film provides one of the more honest depictions of male friendship.
The three young men that set off for California—Grant, Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck), and Milo (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea)—find a bond in their outsider status and their devotion to punk rock. It makes a strange amount of sense that when Milo is gunned down by a bunch of hicks in the desert, his two buddies risk their own lives to avenge him.
It’s little wonder, then, why Spheeris would find herself handpicked by Mike Myers to shepherd Wayne and Garth to the big screen, or working to adapt The Little Rascals, another gang of ragtag youths who join together in defiance of adult indifference. Even though her career has taken her down some weird avenues, Spheeris has never veered from her personal path.
Dudes and Suburbia screen as part of the Hollywood’s “Wyrd War’s Punk Rock Summer Bummer” event. Dudes (screening Thurs Aug 25) will be followed by Spheeris’ short films and a panel discussion with Spheeris, screenwriter Randall Jahnson, and producer Miguel Tejada-Flores. Suburbia (Fri Aug 26) will be preceded by Spheeris’ short films and an introduction by Spheeris.