Spheeris, Penelope

views updated May 14 2018

SPHEERIS, Penelope

Nationality: American. Born: New Orleans, Louisiana, 2 December 1945. Education: School of Theater, Film, and Television, University of California at Los Angeles, M.F.A. Family: One daughter, whose father died of a heroine overdose in 1974. Career: 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 Brooks's feature Real Life, 1979; directed first theatrical feature, the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, 1981; directed first fictional feature, Suburbia, 1984; co-created, co-wrote, and directed television series Danger Theater, 1993. Agent: The Gersh Agency, 232 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


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)


Black Sheep


The Thing in Bob's Garage; Senseless; The Decline of Western Civilization Part III

Other Films:


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)


Wayne's World


The Beverly Hillbillies


The Little Rascals (+ co-sc)


Black Sheep


By SPHEERIS: articles—

"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.

On SPHEERIS: articles—

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'sWorld," 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.

—Rob Edelman

Spheeris, Penelope 1945- (P. Spheeris)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Spheeris, Penelope 1945- (P. Spheeris)


Born December 2, 1945, in New Orleans, LA; father, a circus carnival owner and side-show "strong man"; mother, a ticket taker for a traveling circus side show; children: Anna Schoeller. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, B.A. and M.F.A., film; also studied at American Film Institute, Los Angeles.


Agent—Gersh Agency, Inc., 232 North Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210-5302.


Director, producer, and writer. Rock 'n' Reel (music video production company), founder, 1974, and producer of music videos; Spheeris Films, filmmaker; appeared in print ads for the Directors Guild of America, 2001. Worked as a waitress for twelve years.


Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America.

Awards, Honors:

Freedom of Expression Award and Grand Jury Prize nomination, both Sundance Film Festival, and Jury Award, best documentary, Chicago Underground Film Festival, 1998, all for The Decline of Western Civilization Part III; Most Popular Documentary Award, Melbourne International Film Festival, 2001, for We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll; Spirit of Silver Lake Award, Los Angeles Silver Lake Film Festival, 2001; Pioneer Filmmaker Award, Deep Ellum Film Festival, 2001; Lifetime Achievement Award, Temecula Valley International Film Festival, 2003; Maverick Award, LA Femme Film Festival, 2005.


Film Work:

Editor, Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales, 1968.

Director, I Don't Know, 1971.

Producer, Real Life, Paramount, 1979.

Director, producer, additional photography, and (as P. Spheeris) additional cinematographer, The Decline of Western Civilization (documentary), Spheeris Films, 1981.

Director, Suburbia (also known as Rebel Streets and The Wild Side), New World, 1984.

Director, The Boys Next Door (also known as Big Shots), New World, 1985.

Director, Hollywood Vice Squad (also known as The Boulevard), Cinema Group, 1986.

Director, Dudes, Cineworld, 1986.

Director, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (documentary), New Line Cinema, 1986.

Director, As Nasty As We Want to Be, 1990.

Director, Thunder and Mud, 1990.

Director, Wayne's World, Paramount, 1992.

Director and producer, The Beverly Hillbillies, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1993.

Director, The Little Rascals, Universal, 1994.

Director, Black Sheep, Paramount, 1996.

Director, Senseless, Miramax/Dimension Films, 1998.

Director and camera operator, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (documentary), Spheeris Films, 1998.

Director, The Thing in Bob's Garage, Act III Productions, 1998.

Director, No Use Walking When You Can Stroll, 1998.

Director, Hollywierd, 1999.

Director and cinematographer, We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll (documentary), Divine Pictures, 2001.

Director, Posers, Miramax, 2001.

Director, Closers, Dimension Films, 2001.

Director and producer, The Kid & I, Slowhand Cinema Releasing, 2005.

Also made Lifers Group: World Tour (documentary short).

Film Appearances:

Naked Angels, 1969.

Star the witch, The Ski Bum (also known as Point Zero), 1971.

Margo, The Second Coming of Suzanne (also known as Suzanne), 1974.

Calling the Shots, 1988.

Nicky's mom, Wedding Band, 1990.

(Uncredited) Cameo, Wayne's World, Paramount, 1992.

Penelope Spheeris, The Kid & I, Slowhand Cinema Releasing, 2005.

Television Work; Movies:

Director, The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron, CBS, 2003.

Television Work; Specials:

(With others) Director, Decade, MTV, 1989.

Segment director, "New Chicks," in "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside," HBO Showcase, HBO, 1991.

Director, Visitors from the Unknown, CBS, 1991.

Director, UFO Abductions, 1991.

Segment director, The 75th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 2002.

Segment director, Oscar Countdown 2003, 2003.

Cinematographer, Mississippi Rising, 2005.

Television Work; Pilots:

Cocreator, executive producer, and director, Danger Theatre, Fox, 1993.

Director, Dear Doughboy, The WB, 2000.

Television Work; Episodic:

Producer: film segments, Saturday Night Live (also known as SNL), NBC, 1975-76.

Story editor, "One for the Road," Roseanne, ABC, 1990.

Director, "Prom Night," Cracking Up, 2004.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Decade, MTV, 1989.

VH1 Presents the '70s, VH1, 1996.

Canned Ham: Senseless, Comedy Central, 1998.

Intimate Portrait: Lea Thompson, Lifetime, 1998.

100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock, VH1, 2000.

Ernest Goes to Hollywood: Jim Varney, the E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 2001.

VH1 Presents the '80s, VH1, 2001.

The Beverly Hillbillies: The E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 2001.

Herself, Hollywood High, AMC, 2003.

When Metal Ruled the World, VH1, 2004.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, Independent Film Channel, 2004.

The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody, BBC, 2004.

Heavy: The Story of Metal, VH1, 2005-2006.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Independent View, PBS, 2002.

"Penelope Spheeris/John Doe," The Henry Rollins Show, Independent Film Channel, 2006.


Film Scripts:

The Decline of Western Civilization (documentary), Spheeris Films, 1981.

Suburbia (also known as Rebel Streets and The Wild Side), New World, 1984.

(With Bert Dragin) Summer Camp Nightmare (also known as The Butterfly Revolution), Concorde, 1987.

(And story) The Little Rascals, Universal, 1994.

Television Pilot Stories:

Danger Theatre, Fox, 1993.

Television Episodes:

"Fender Bender," Roseanne, ABC, 1990.



Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 46, Gale Group, 2002.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.

Newsmakers 1989, Issue 4, Gale, 1989.

Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.


People Weekly, July 4, 1988, pp. 52-54.