Unsung Auteurs: Penelope Spheeris

September 1, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: seasoned rock’n’roller and gifted comedy helmer Penelope Spheeris.

“I generally think about myself as someone who studies human behavior and is trying to figure out what the hell is going on in our current society,” director Penelope Spheeris once said. “If I can leave any film that helps define a certain time after I’m dead, then that’s great.”

Though she has jumped in and out of the Hollywood mainstream, Penelope Spheeris kick-started her career with a series of ragged, punk-inflected films that appropriately marked her as a singularly aggressive and individualistic talent. Born in New Orleans to a Greek immigrant father who operated a travelling carnival, Spheeris spent her first seven years on the road. After this highly unorthodox childhood, Spheeris majored in film at UCLA, and eventually launched her career by producing shorts for the seminal comedy TV series Saturday Night Live.

Penelope Spheeris

Spheeris’ first film was 1968’s Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales (about a white man on trial for raping a black woman), which starred trailblazing comic Richard Pryor. The film, however, was never released, and was allegedly destroyed by Pryor after his wife expressed various concerns about it. In 2005, the film would become the subject of a lawsuit, with Pryor suing Spheeris over claims that she had conspired with his daughter to take the film from his home. Pryor died in December 2005, and the suit is still currently pending.

Spheeris’ first released feature film was the influential 1981 doco The Decline Of Western Civilization, which chronicled the LA punk rock scene. Gritty, grainy and startlingly immediate, Spheeris’ debut doco not only captures the vibe of the LA punk scene on camera, but mines the same sensibility in terms of style and tone, and features a group of fascinating misfit teens. It remains one of the most essential music documentaries of all time, and while Spheeris is certainly celebrated for it in certain circles, she is rarely given credit as a director of something truly epochal.  “The film was financed by two businessmen who wanted to make a porn movie,” Spheeris says. “They had no idea that I was going in to pitch a punk rock movie.”

A scene from Suburbia.

After this, Spheeris continued with her brand of edgy, punk rock filmmaking, delivering the 1984 teen rebellion cult favourite Suburbia. Rough in tone but rich in feeling, this hard-rumbling flick centres on “The Rejected”, a group of teen punks in the American suburbs who clash with the elements of “straight” society (cops, parents) who are affronted by their very existence. The film was made under the auspices of master exploitation producer Roger Corman, and Spheeris was forced into including scenes of sex and violence to meet his demands. “I really wanted to do narrative pictures, so I had to do what Roger Corman said,” Spheeris told Roger Ebert.com.

Spheeris followed that with the little seen 1985 gem The Boys Next Door. Maxwell Caulfield (yes, that Maxwell Caulfield – the one from Grease 2) is dynamite as a suburban psycho who hits LA with his buddy Charlie Sheen (yes, Charlie Sheen) for a wild weekend that turns into a killing spree in this disturbingly funny piece of cinematic nihilism. Largely forgotten like so many other 1980s “youth movie” curios (Tuff Turf, anyone? Alphabet City?), The Boys Next Door is in desperate need of rediscovery.

A scene from The Boys Next Door.

After that cult-film-that-should-have-been, Spheeris veered temporarily into exploitation territory with 1986’s Hollywood Vice Squad. Boasting an unusual cast (Ronny Cox, Frank Gorshin, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Trish Van Devere, Carrie Fisher, Robin Wright), the film melds TV-style police procedural beats with lashings of urban sleaze. “I did a movie called Hollywood Vice Squad and gave Robin Wright her first job in a film, and gave Carrie Fisher her first job out of rehab,” Spheeris told The Creative Independent. “It was a terrible movie, but I learned how to roll a car and blow up a bullet squib and make somebody look dead. It’s not like I would do those kinds of movies anymore, but I learned a lot. My agent said, ‘Where else are you going to make $50,000, Penelope?’ And I went, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right. Let’s go.’”

With that detour in her rearview, Spheeris returned to more familiar subject matter with 1987’s highly unusual Dudes, which tracks three LA punks (Jon Cryer, Daniel Roebuck and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, who had also featured in Suburbia) who slam headfirst into bigotry and violence in America’s redneck heartland. An almost Alex Cox-style trashy blend of punk and western tropes, Dudes is another 1980s curio in need of serious reconsideration.

Penelope Spheeris while shooting The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years.

In 1988, Spheeris followed up her original punk doco with The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, which trawled through the Los Angeles heavy metal scene. Though lacking the fire-starting, lightning-in-a-bottle feel of the first film, Spheeris wades right into the delirious silliness and excess of heavy metal, and comes up with something both funny and illuminating. Great, from-the-frontline interviews with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Gene Simmons, Steven Tyler and many, many more add to the frazzled atmosphere.

In 1992, Spheeris made the film that would completely alter her career, helming the smash hit Wayne’s World, a big screen version of the popular Saturday Night Live skit about two suburban metal heads. It made Mike Myers a megastar, introduced a whole new cultural lexicon (“Schwing!”, “A sphincter says what?”, “Extreme Close Up!”, “No way!” “Way!”), and made millions at the box office. All that aside, it’s undoubtedly one of the funniest films of the nineties. “I was the only director around who knew how to do metal,” Spheeris has said of being offered the film. “That, and [Saturday Night Live creator] Lorne Michaels owed me a bunch of favours.”

Penelope Spheeris with Dana Carvey on the set of Wayne’s World.

The film put the director on the Hollywood map, but it also deconstructed her punk rock image. After being passed over for the sequel (Spheeris and Myers didn’t get along, and the star would only return if a different director was at the helm), Spheeris disappointingly spiraled into a series of soft-boiled comedies (The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, Black Sheep, The Kid & I, Balls To The Wall, Senseless) that, while not without their modest charms, certainly lacked the fiery rock’n’roll edginess that characterised the director’s previous work.

Decline I and II and Suburbia are dearly loved, but they never made any money,” Spheeris has said of her Hollywood detour. “I didn’t even have the rights for some of them, and it was all messed up. So I worked for the studios, making those, um, comedies, and I found that I could make enough money to then be able to do the work I was passionate about.”

Penelope Spheeris

True to her word, Spheeris did parlay that cash into more worthy projects, such as the docos The Decline Of Western Civilization III (an update on the underground punk scene) and We Sold Our Souls For Rock’n’Roll (about the travelling metal roadshow that is Ozzfest). “You don’t see me making documentaries about Britney Spears or Madonna,” she says. “I just like this harder edge stuff. That’s just me.”

Sadly, Penelope Spheeris’ last credit was the 2012 TV Christmas movie The Real St. Nick. If a male director had been at the reins of a fantastic, game-changing smash hit like Wayne’s World, it’s a safe bet that his resume would be slightly more jammed up than that…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins

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