A holder of a UCLA Master of Fine Arts degree in Theater Arts, Penelope Spheeris worked as a film editor and cinematographer before forming her own production company in 1974. Rock ‘N’ Reel was the first Los Angeles company specializing in music videos. She produced and directed music videos for such acts as Funkadelics, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, and Seals and Croft. From there she went on to produce short films on Saturday Night Live and later produced her first feature film, Real Life, which starred Albert Brooks and Charles Grodin.
Spheeris’ directorial debut was the probing documentary on the Los Angeles punk rock scene, The Decline Of Western Civilization, which was received in 1979 with stunning unanimous critical praise. It was followed by a remarkable low budget drama, Surburbia, in which she found another dimension to the ongoing youth rebellion story: homeless kids squatting in abandoned housing, surrounded by wild dogs, trying to make a life for themselves, protecting one another and avoiding the return home at all costs. Surburbia won first place at the Chicago Film Festival.
In 1984, The Boys Next Door starred Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield in an anti-violence film that showed how perfectly normal looking boys, whose anger has long been repressed, can be walking time bombs capable of becoming serial killers. In these films Spheeris reveals the desolation of the American Dream gone bad, depicting scenes of young people exhibiting irreversible pain and alienation. In Dudes, starring John Cryer, Daniel Roebuck, Lee Ving and Flea, alienated punk rockers find a way to give meaning to life when they discover a sense of values while setting straight the death of a friend.
In 1988 The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years was released, again to spectacular critical acclaim. In this caustically hilarious look at the Los Angeles metal scene, the scene with W.A.S.P. rocker Chris Holmes and his mother will probably remain one of the most memorable pieces of rock film history. In 1992, Spheeris directed her first studio film, Wayne’s World, at Paramount Pictures. Subsequently she directed and produced The Beverly Hillbillies at Fox. The Little Rascals (Universal), Black Sheep (Paramount), and Senseless (Dimension) were to follow.
The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III was filmed in 1997. Documenting the present day punk scene, most of the kids were not yet born when the first installment was made. The film focuses on lifestyle rather than music in that most of the subjects are homeless, the products of child abuse and a society truly in decline. Spheeris financed the film herself and will donate her profits to charities for homeless and abused children.
For the project We Sold Our Souls For Rock ‘N Roll, Spheeris traveled for months with fourteen bands and a myriad of carnival attractions to document the Ozzfest, America’s most successful summer concert tour, and the final reunion performances of the original Black Sabbath. Through twenty-eight cities, each bringing in crowds of thirty to forty thousand, she and DV and HD crews offer the audience a unique view of life on the road.
The Kid and I, produced and directed by Spheeris, was completed in late 2004.