New Orleans, Louisiana, 2 December 1945.
School of Theater, Film, and Television, University of California at Los
One daughter, whose father died of a heroine overdose in 1974.
Voted Most Likely to Succeed by her high school classmates; made several
short films while studying at UCLA, early 1970s; worked as an actress and
film editor, early 1970s; founded Rock 'n' Reel, a company
specializing in rock music promotion, 1974; produced short films directed
by Albert Brooks and presented on
Saturday Night Live
, mid-late 1970s; entered the motion picture industry as producer of
, 1979; directed first theatrical feature, the documentary
The Decline of Western Civilization
, 1981; directed first fictional feature,
, 1984; co-created, co-wrote, and directed television series
The Gersh Agency, 232 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.
The Decline of Western Civilization (doc) (+ sc, pr)
Suburbia ( The Wild Side ) (+ sc)
The Boys Next Door
Hollywood Vice Squad
The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (doc) (+ sc)
Prison Stories: Women on the Inside (for TV) (episode of three-part film)
Wayne's World ; Lifers Group: World Tour (doc short)
The Beverly Hillbillies
The Little Rascals (+ sc)
The Thing in Bob's Garage ; Senseless ; The Decline of Western Civilization Part III
Real Life (Brooks) (pr)
Summer Camp Nightmare ( The Butterfly Revolution ) (Dragin) (co-sc)
Wedding Band (Raskov) (role); Thunder and Mud
Prison Stories: Women on the Inside (for TV)
The Beverly Hillbillies
The Little Rascals (+ co-sc)
"Is There Life after Punk?," an interview with Peter Occhiogrosso in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1985.
Spheeris, Penelope, "Western Civilization Declines Again," in Premiere (New York), June 1988.
"Dialogue on Film," with Penelope Spheeris and Danny Elfman, in American Film (New York), February 1991.
"Wayneing Supreme," an interview with R. Guilliatt, in Time Out (London), 13 May 1992.
Gold, Richard, article in Variety (New York), 26 December 1984.
Wickenhaver, J., article in Millimeter (New York), April 1987.
Occhiogrosso, Peter, article in Premiere (New York), October 1987.
Milward, John, article in Newsday (Melville, New York), 17 June 1988.
Maslin, Janet, "Film View: Penelope Spheeris Finds the Heart of Rock," in New York Times , 26 June 1988.
Willman, Chris, article in Los Angeles Times , 1 March 1992.
Diamond, Jamie, "Penelope Spheeris: From Carny Life to Wayne's World ," in New York Times , 12 April 1992.
Cohn, Lawrence, "Truth-Tellers Start to Tell Tales," in Variety (New York), 11 May 1992.
Marc, David, "Sibling Rivalry," in Sight and Sound (London), July 1994.
Harvey, Dennis, " The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, " in Variety (New York), 2 February 1998.
O'Hehir, Andrew, "Gleaning the Tube," in Sight and Sound (London), August 1998.
* * *
Unlike many women directors, Penelope Spheeris does not make films that are sensitive at their core, that focus on women and their relationships and emotions. Rather, her films—at least the group she made in the first section of her career—are hard-edged and in-your-face brutal. In terms of subject matter, they often deal with male adolescent angst as it exists within a grim, realistic urban environment. If none are particularly distinguished, they certainly are linked thematically, and by their solemn and depressing outlook.
Suburbia , Spheeris's first non-documentary feature, details the plight of a group of teen runaways residing on the edge of Los Angeles. It opens with a pack of wild dogs tearing a baby to shreds. The Boys Next Door is the saga of two teen boys who become serial killers. It included footage that had to be edited out in order to avoid an X rating. Dudes focuses on some young urban punk rockers who cross paths with murderous Southwestern rednecks. Not all of Spheeris's young protagonists are male, however. One of the characters in Hollywood Vice Squad is a runaway girl who has become a heroin-addicted prostitute.
Spheeris has admitted that her preoccupation with alienation and brutality is directly related to the incidents in her life. "I look at violence in a realistic way because I've experienced a lot of it in my own life," she once told an interviewer. While she grew up in a travelling side show called the Magic Empire Carnival, there was nothing enchanted about her childhood. When she was seven years old, her father was murdered. Her younger brother died at the hands of a drunken driver. Her mother, an alcoholic, was married nine times. And her lover, the father of her daughter Anna, overdosed on heroin in 1974. Perhaps the infant being torn apart at the beginning of Suburbia is a representation of innocent young Penelope Spheeris, whose childhood purity was ripped from her at a too-young age.
As a child, Spheeris became captivated by rock music as an expression of youthful rebellion. This interest led her into a career in the music industry (as she formed her own company, Rock 'n' Reel, which produced short promotional films for such groups as the Doobie Brothers) and to the subject matter of her initial feature, the one which established her as a director. It is the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization , which records the late 1970s punk rock scene in Los Angeles. Featured are groups with such names as Circle Jerks, Fear, X, and Catholic Discipline, which are made up of rockers who are alienated not only from the core of straight American society but from the established, old guard in the rock 'n' roll hierarchy; to these rockers, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Kinks are as much a part of the mainstream as Spiro Agnew. Six years later, Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years , which contrasted several veterans of the heavy metal scene (including Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and members of Aerosmith) to younger punk wannabes. Indeed, Spheeris's attraction to individuals so far outside even the farthest degrees of the establishment may be traced to one of the films she made while a student at the UCLA Film School, Hats Off to Hollywood , about the romance between a drag queen and a lesbian.
Spheeris's first mega-hit came with Wayne's World , based on the nonsensical but nonetheless popular Saturday Night Live skit featuring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as self-proclaimed "party dudes" who have their own cable TV show. Despite the film's box-office success, it is too often idiotic and dull. Her features since then, like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals , are even bigger disappointments, and far removed from the spirit of her earlier work: the first is a poorly done version of the silly but funny 1960s TV sitcom, and the second a pale reworking of the beloved Hal Roach oneand two-reel comedies.