Aug 3, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)

Director: Lou Adler
Writer: Nancy Dowd
Producer: Joe Roth
Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees
Paramount; 87 min; color

Diane Lane (Corinne Burns), Marin Kanter (Tracy Burns), Laura Dern (Jessica McNeil), Peter Donat (Harley Dennis), Christine Lahti (Aunt Linda), Ray Winstone (Billy), Paul Simonon (Johnny ), Steve Jones (Steve), Paul Cook (Danny)

Early on, two of our three pissed-off teenaged girls, eager to escape all their suburban angst, are viewing their slipshod vehicle to freedom.  One of the girls looks at this rickety tour bus, and exclaims, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”  The other girl replies, “Who gives a shit?  It’s our way out of this fucking town.”  This short, hilarious moment pretty much encapsulates the sassy tone of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains; and for that matter, it is symbolizes its characters’ willingness to tolerate any situation, if it gets them a bit further on their journey to be rock and roll stars.  That “go for broke” sentiment is total rock and roll, and made by someone who would surely know.

Music producer Lou Adler didn’t make very many movies, but his rare sojourns into cinema were the last words of the love generation (Monterey Pop, which he produced) and counterculture (Up In Smoke, which he directed).  And although his direction here is sometimes flat, this cutting look at the punk music scene (with clever barbs at consumerism and its ample share of nihilism) benefits from a dynamite screenplay by Rob Morton (actually a pseudonym for Nancy Dowd, who earned her credentials for sass by writing Slap Shot), and game performances by its interesting cast.

Paramount put this movie on the shelf for three years before they released it, and even then, carelessly only let it run for a few days in limited engagements. Rather, the film found its audience with late-night airings on cable in the 1980s. Its appeal (and authenticity) is also helped in no small amount by the casting of Steve Jones and Paul Simonon (both of The Clash) and Peter Cook (of the Sex Pistols) as musicians.

At its core,Ladies and Gentlemen is a punk version of A Star Is Born.  Diane Lane (who was 15 during the production of this movie) plays Corinne, the leader of an all-girl punk act called The Stains.  Their gimmick is prancing around in trashy red nylons, skunk hair-dos, and no bras, while uttering the statement: “We don’t put out.”  Of course they can’t sing worth shit. (In fact, Christine Lahti, who has a small scene as Corinne’s aunt, has the best voice of all, as she sings along to Carole King on the radio!)  But what the Stains lack in musical talent (young Laura Dern plays the bassist!) they sure make up for in attitude.  (And this is punk- it’s not about musicianship, right?) Somehow, they become the opening act for the group The Looters in their cross-country tour.  Corinne has a dalliance with this one musician from the group The Metal Corpses (played by Fee Waybill of The Tubes)- and when he is found dead from an overdose (an image that doesn’t soon leave you), this scandal thereby forces the attention onto Corinne and her outfit, and before long, The Looters are opening for them, as the shows are now populated by Corinne lookalikes with the two-tone hair, trashy leather and nylon, chanting “We don’t put out.”  These scenes give more empowerment to young females than the likes of Madonna ever dared, or even Tiffany for that matter.  (And for my money, even with all the trashy threads, and Traci Lords brat pouts, Corinne is actually a more positive role model for young ladies than those half naked pop divas of today.)

Finally, enough is enough- the Looters are being booed off-stage by all the Stains fans, and lead singer Billy, with whom Corinne has also had a fling, manages to get this arena full of Stains-heads to realize how much they’ve been had, as all the Stains have really done is turn individualism into a commodity.  It’s an amazing scene, really, and it is a moment even truer now, with the way the mainstream swallowed the independent scene and turned it into commercial bubblegum.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a very funny movie- and while it is a sharp satire, the laughter also evolves because it is so real and it pulsates with life.  But even if the movie is about pissed-off teenagers playing pissed-off rock and roll, it is also responsible.  With scenes of the guys in the Looters seemingly fighting each other every five minutes, the unforgettable shot of a rocker found with a needle in his arm, all captured by Bruce Surtees’ gritty cinematography, the world this movie creates is certainly no place for young girls.

As testament part of its troubled production history, because the original downbeat ending didn’t test well, Paramount had called the trio of young actresses back a couple of years after principal photography for a tacked-on upbeat conclusion, and I think the film is better for it. The finale is a brilliant MTV mock-up, in a startlingly prescient sequence featuring the Stains now all scrubbed up with poofy hair and those slutty long thin earrings, playing a brand of power pop, which turned the urgency and intensity of punk into K-Mart musak. This message is not lost in today’s climate of suburban mall pubescent yearning that Christina and company pawn off the racks at Walmart. The scene too is lent some authenticity because the girls had visibly aged in those two years, thus illustrating the time spent on their road to fame and fortune.

By the way, is the name The Stains a spin on the group The Wet Spots?

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