Review: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains
Back in the VHS era, pirated copies of youth films with dystopic themes and subcultural weirdos circulated among my teenage Texas friends like samizdat or cheap trucker speed. Punk was dead, but American hardcore was very much alive, thanks to Reagan, preppies, and stifling suburban malaise. (See Michael Azerrad’s matchless cultural history Our Band Could Be Your Life for more on the pre-Nirvana glory days.) Celluloid representations of alienated kids connected in some way to punk culture were scarce to begin with, but we managed to find them, often on badly dubbed, half-disintegrated dimestore videocassettes. Remember Dexter Fishpaw, the angsty, glue-sniffing, spiky-haired young foot stomper in John Waters’s Polyester? He was our hero.
At a packed Film Comment Selects screening Wednesday night at New York’s Walter Reade Theater, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with Lou Adler’s cult favorite Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, which I’d never seen on the big screen. That’s because Paramount shelved the film in 1981 after some poorly received test runs, condemning it to the obscurity of late-night cable television, which is where many of the punk films I saw and loved, like Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia and the who’s-who concert film Urgh! A Music War, eventually aired. Films that did get a theatrical release were subject to intense scrutiny in our clique, where authenticity (of style, of sound, of attitude) meant everything: Repo Man was brainy, cool, and enigmatic, and had a killer soundtrack by Iggy Pop and the Circle Jerks to boot. (Grade: A+.) Valley Girl, starring Nicholas Cage as a mall punker who falls for Deborah Foreman’s titular blonde, stank of commercial appropriation and was purely for poseurs. (Grade: F.) Midnight movies were a great place to catch endless runs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Liquid Sky, but if you weren’t old enough to drive (I wasn’t) or you didn’t have permissive parents (I didn’t), then your only hope of escaping the John Hughes tween ghetto was to park it on the couch of whoever happened to have a ripped copy of the latest underground flick. Admittedly, The Fabulous Stains fell short of expectation at the time, but seeing it with fresh eyes, I was struck by how sassy and insolent the film truly is, which is remarkable considering its unusually square pedigree.
Written by Oscar winner Nancy Dowd (Coming Home), and produced by future Disney honcho Joe Roth and music maven Lou Lombardo, who’d worked with the Mamas and the Papas before teaming with Adler on Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is the story a proto-riot-grrrl group led by Diane Lane’s Corinne Burns, a brassy, rebellious runaway from white-trash Pennsylvania with a bad attitude. Along with her little sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Lynch siren Laura Dern), the Stains are no-talent wanna-bes who somehow find their way onto a tour bus with washed-up burnouts The Metal Corpses, led by Tubes vocalist Fee Waybill, and ornery British punks The Looters. With their two-tone “skunk” hairdos, New Wave makeup, and outrageously risqué attire (black lace panties, high heels, see-through tops), the gals draw the attention of a local media celebrity (Cynthia Sikes) and inspire legions of pre-teen copycats who echo their saucy slogan: “We’re perfect. And we don’t put out!”
Of course, the Stains’ rise to fame and insta-celebrity is bumpy and absurdly brief. By the time they’ve shed their small-town, Shaggs-like innocence and transformed into Go Go’s–esque punkettes, the girls have dealt with a fatal drug overdose, talking-head media scrutiny, poisonous inter-band meltdowns, record-industry sharks, and the ugly politics of being pop-star fabrications. Lane’s I’m-hot-don’t-touch-me act piques the interest of Looters frontman Billy, played by a petulant, potty-mouthed Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast), whose own band includes Clash bassist Paul Simonon and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, all essentially playing themselves. After copping the Looters’ “Join the Professionals” (written by Cook and Jones), the Stains are at the top of their game. But betrayal cuts both ways, and even the fans finally turn against their idols.
Adler’s B-movie oddity remains fascinating as a time capsule and a cultural reference point, essentially dramatizing the commodification of alt culture in its infant stage, two decades before Thomas Frank analyzed business culture’s appropriation of countercultural dissent in The Conquest of Cool. Johnny Rotten’s sneering quip “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” from The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle could serve as an emblem of sorts for the film’s trajectory. In fact, Dowd, who was inspired to write the film after seeing a Ramones concert and later took her name off the project (it was credited to “Joe Morton”), ended on a slightly sour note, with pouty Lane isolated in a parking lot, abandoned by her band, her boyfriend, and a cutthroat agent, while a scooter carrying two “skunk” girls motors by, suggesting that all her efforts hadn’t been in vain. The execs at Paramount, bugged out by a thumbs-down Denver screening, tacked on a glitzy, back-in-fashion, look-at-them-now montage of the reunited Stains performing in a flashy MTV-style video and hitting the covers of all the major music mags. Rolling Stone + Forbes = Success!
Despite this transparently craven bottom-line ploy, The Fabulous Stains is fun to watch as it mounts a cheeky critique of consumer culture, TV-age hype, rock-music clichés, and teen exploitation. Fee Waybill’s hilariously foppish turn as a coke-snorting Alice Cooper-y rock ghoul in ghastly KISS-grade makeup offers a great counterpoint to Winstone’s ill-tempered Cockney growler, clearly modeled after Rotten. The scandalously young Diane Lane (she was cast at age 14) is tart, perky, gorgeous, and effortlessly aloof and sexy, especially in the faux documentary opening sequence where she’s being interviewed by an older male reporter about the death of her mother. Dowd and Adler nod to the influence of reggae on British punk, too, with a Rastafarian bus driver/tour manager (Barry Ford) given to patois-inflected bons mots (“Everybody wanna go to heaven. Nobody want to die”) and comically irate, I-and-I speechification. Plenty to hook you, if you’re on a nostalgic head trip or digging around for a slanted take on early ’80s underground pop culture. Provided you can find it, of course.
Long live the Stains!