|Dateline 1980: punk rock is still thriving, but hardly the sensation it was three years prior — The Sex Pistols have split up, SST records is two years old, and Sid has already killed Nancy. New Wave is beginning to rear its head, and MTV is just around the corner. However, in those pre-Interweb days Hollywood was a bit slow in catching on to youth trends, so it's hardly surprising that Paramount Pictures' foray into punk cinema never even managed to find a theatrical release. Yet even without distribution, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains has managed to become a huge cult classic, with groups such as Hole and Bikini Kill citing it as a tremendous influence on the creation of their bands.|
A gritty drama about the rise and fall of an all-girl punk band, Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains began with a screenplay by Oscar winner Nancy Dowd (Coming Home, Slap Shot) called All Washed Up. A cynical tale of the music industry and mainstream media with a decidedly feminist bent, Paramount offered the project to veteran rock producer Lou Adler (The Mamas and the Papas, Sam Cooke, etc.) who had to chose between this and Airplane! for his next feature. Not long after shooting began, Dowd stormed off the set after being groped by a camera operator (he twisted her breast as if focusing a lens) and had her name removed from the project. Though there's no question that her original screenplay was compromised, the finished product is still easily one of the best teen movies of the 80s, warts and all.
Set in the bleak working class town of Charlestown, PA (Dowd used the same locale in Slap Shot), the film tells of Corinne "Third Degree" Burns (14 year-old Diane Lane), an angry, streetwise orphan who forms a band with her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter) and cousin Jennifer (Laura Dern) called, obviously, The Stains. Corinne dreams of escape, and it's no wonder — women in Charlestown marry early, have their kids by 20, and sit around all day doing shots of Jameson's while chain smoking and singing along to old Carole King songs on the radio (Christine Lahti, perfect as Dern's white trash mother).
A nickel and dime traveling rock tour that stops in their town provides the girls with their lucky break. Having seen Corinne interviewed on television, the tour's Rastafarian road manager hires them as the opening act, purely as a means of controlling the feuding between the two lead acts — an aged, washed up rock group called, appropriately enough, The Metal Corpses, and a young British punk band called The Looters, led by Billy, played by a then-svelte Ray Winstone. Fee Waybill (of The Tubes) gives an inspired (and somewhat self-parodying) performance as the Gene Simmons-ish lead singer of The Metal Corpses, complete with every rock cliché attached. They are relics of the stone age when compared to The Looters, who sound like a cross between The Sex Pistols and The Clash, which comes as no surprise given that the band is comprised of former Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, and Clash bassist Paul Simonon.
At their first gig, The Stains are anything but fabulous. Though braless in sheer tops, and sporting white-striped mohawks with red lightning bolt makeup, the band sound more like The Shaggs than anything remotely resembling punk. Halfway through their one song — I'm a Waste of Time — Corinne stops the music and goes into a tirade against women who idolize (and sleep with) rock stars, ending with the somewhat infamous, "I'm perfect, but none of you shitholes get me because I don't put out!" This mantra begins to catch on, giving birth to the skunks, young female fans who style themselves after Corinne and follow a "we don't put out" lifestyle. Yet the question remains — is an audience full of underage girls in see-through blouses truly an example of feminist empowerment, or merely exploitation? I'm not entirely sure.
The film takes a halfhearted stab at gender politics through a series of local news reports featuring a male-female anchor team arguing about The Stains along gender lines. The condescending male anchor has nothing but hatred and scorn, and sees them as little more than a media creation, with fans simply mimicking what they've seen on TV. She, on the other hand, is all about the girl-power, defends the band's originality and ballsy attitude, and views The Stains as "an appeal for young women to resist." Poorly acted scenes made fascinating by the suggestion of such talk actually being heard on the nightly news.
|It's not long before The Stains become the headline act on the tour, thanks (in part) to Corinne's resourcefulness in stealing both The Looters' signature tune and moves. This leads to the following exchange with Billy, one that sums up the film in a nutshell:|
Corinne: You're so jealous of me. I'm everything you ever wanted to be!
Indeed. And though Corinne cynically believes this to be her only method of making it in the male-dominated music biz, such an upset to the natural balance of power is too much for the boys, which leaves Billy no other choice than to destroy The Stains. After being continuously booed by the seemingly all-female audience, Billy, in a variation on Johnny Rotten's "Ever got the feeling you've been cheated?" farewell at the Sex Pistols final gig, convinces the skunks that they are nothing more than adverts for The Stains, who are stuffing their pockets with the dollars spent on tickets, hair dye, makeup etc. In a flash the fans have turned, The Stains are through, and the male power structure has been safely restored. To add insult to injury, Corinne appears on TV with the male anchor (his female co-anchor has been "transferred" to the Washington desk) who gleefully basks in her demise.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains might not be a landmark in feminist cinema, but it certainly is one of the few films to address the disparity between sexes in the rock world. Though pedestrian in its approach, its message is on target: "Every girl should be given a guitar at 16", Corinne declares. As the commodofication of female rock stars continues to increase, perhaps there's some wisdom in those words.
Test screenings of the film were abysmal, and Paramount quickly decided to shelve the film. A year later, Adler shot a more upbeat ending (more on that in a moment), but even that didn't result in a proper release. The film became a staple on USA Network's Night Flight show in the mid-80s, which is where it achieved its cult status. A rumored DVD from Paramount in 2004 never materialized, though halfway decent looking bootlegs can be found on EBay for around $10.
As for the tacked on happy ending, Adler shows the band in colorfully fashionable outfits and feathered hair (resembling the Go-Go's) performing a watered-down, synth-infused version of their hit song in an MTV video. Fully co-opted and homogenized, with their individuality destroyed, this supposedly upbeat ending is even more depressing than the original. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains isn't a perfect film, and it certainly suffers from some wooden performances and on-the-nose dialog. But as a document of the era, and a general look at the gradual commercialization of punk, it's an absolute must-see.