Penelope Spheeris’ ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ Trilogy Wins Legacy Award From Cinema Eye Honors | Exclusive

The rock ‘n’ roll documentaries were made over 17 years and chronicled unruly and vibrant subcultures

Decline of Western Civilization
"Decline of Western Civilization" (Courtesy of Penelope Spheeris)

Penelope Spheeris’ nonfiction rock ‘n’ roll trilogy “The Decline of Western Civilization” will receive the 2024 Legacy Award at the Cinema Eye Honors, Cinema Eye organizers announced on Monday exclusive with TheWrap.

The films will be saluted at the Cinema Eye ceremony at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City on Jan. 12, but Spheeris will receive the award at a later date following a screening at Vidiots in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles.

Spheeris’ three “The Decline of Western Civilization” films, made over the course of 17 years, delved into three raucous and vibrant musical subcultures. The original 1981 film chronicled the Los Angeles punk movement of the early 1980s and was later selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. The second film, “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years,” covered the metal scene in L.A. later in that decade, while “The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” delved into the gutter punk scene of the late 1990s.  

“The ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ trilogy is a landmark achievement in the history of documentary filmmaking and there is no one in film history who has explored and illuminated subcultures in the way that Penelope Spheeris has,” Cinema Eye founding director AJ Schnack said in a statement announcing the award. “Her groundbreaking work in these three films annoyed the establishment when the films were released, and decades later, continues to inspire filmmakers to create truly independent nonfiction films.”

Past winners of Cinema Eye’s Legacy Award include Barbara Kopple’s “Harland County, USA,” Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies,” David and Albert Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “The War Room,” Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb.”

“To be honored with Cinema Eye’s Legacy Award is astounding to me,” Spheeris said in a statement. “All these years, I was just trying to make a living by doing something I loved, making movies. Most of them, except ‘Wayne’s World,’ had little or no distribution, including ‘The Decline’ series. In retrospect, I realize I was kicking down heavy doors, and hanging in there when it would have been easier to walk away. However, to receive this award makes it all worthwhile.”

Cinema Eye Honors also announced that voting for its annual Audience Choice Prize has begun. The 10 nominees are “American Symphony,” “20 Days in Mariupol,” “The Eternal Memory,” “Beyond Utopia,” “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” “The Deepest Breath,” “Invisible Beauty” and “Joan Baez I Am a Noise.”

Votes can be cast at cinemaeyehonors.com until Wednesday.

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