Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains

I think that every citizen should be given an electric guitar on her 16th birthday.

— Corinne Burns (Diane Lane)

“Rock star” is a phrase steeped in contradiction. It implies celebrity and popularity, but also independence and outsiderness. It connotes wealth and success, “making it”, but also sticking it to the man. The early ’80s cult film, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, finally out on DVD thanks to Rhino Entertainment, unpacks these divergent meanings through the meteoric rise and semi-fall of fictional punk trio, the Stains.

The Stains are composed of teenagers Corinne Burns (Diane Lane), her sister, Tracy (Marin Kanter), on bass, and cousin, Jessica, AKA “Peg”, McNeil (Laura Dern), on guitar. Even before forming the band as its manager and lead singer, Corinne had achieved minor celebrity from having been tempestuously fired from her job on camera for a story broadcast by a 60 Minutes-type show. On the heels of her mother’s death, she announces the Stains to the world during a follow up interview with the show’s host, Harley Dennis (Peter Donat), and leverages that exposure into a tour spot with a has-been metal band, the Metal Corpses, and a small-time English punk group, the Looters.

The tour proves to be ill-fated. Not only are the Corpses old burnouts, but guitarist Jerry Jervey (Vince Welnick) dies soon after the Stains join the show. For their part, the Looters repeatedly clash over whether the tour is a good idea or not. The rickety old bus that the bands are traveling in is owned by a Reggae artist, Lawnboy (Barry Ford), who hatched the tour as a means of raising money to get a fellow musician out of jail. Needless to say, even before Jervey’s death, this plan was not really working out.

When the Stains finally get to play, it appears, at first, to be a disaster. They launch into their one song, “Waste of Time”, and the crowd’s attention drifts. When they take the stage, Tracy and Peg are dressed in leather jumpsuits provided by Lawnboy, but Corinne is in a big beret and overcoat. After Peg stumbles in her playing, the band stops and the crowd is ready to move beyond ignoring them and into jeering.

Corinne pauses, notices a woman in front purposefully brushing her hair, and whips off her hat to reveal her own do, which features white stripes down the sides and a black one through the middle. This shocks everyone in the crowd, including Tracy and Peg, but there are a few women who are clearly more intrigued than turned off by Corinne’s look. She proceeds to verbally assault the audience, and the woman in front in particular, calling the crowd “Suckers!” and shouting out the literal and figurative distance between them and the “stars” they’ve come to see. Her final attack, directed at the woman with the hair brush, “So what does that make you? Just another girl lining up to die”, prompts the woman’s date to throw his drink on Corrine to cheers and applause.

Corinne seemingly makes to leave, but rather than exit, she takes off her overcoat. Rather than Lawnboy’s jumpsuit, she is dressed in a red see-through blouse, sans bra, black panties and tights, and high-heeled ankle boots. She returns to the mic and declares, “I’m perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me ‘cuz I don’t put out.”

This causes a huge buzz in the crowd, and certainly to mainstream, patriarchal America she very much appears to be a girl who “puts out”, but those words don’t quite mean to Corrine what they mean in common usage. She isn’t talking about not having sex so much as not being taken advantage of.

While most in the audience are confused and alienated by this performance, at least one young girl (Angie Crowe) is enthralled. She shows up at the next show looking like Corinne and calling herself a “skunk”. Corinne, meanwhile, catches the attention of a local newsperson, Alicia Meeker (Cynthia Sikes), at first because Meeker assumes that Corinne must be Jerry Jervey’s girlfriend — why else would she be with the band? — and then because she finds the teen compelling. Meeker begins to announce the Stains’ local dates. Corinne and her bandmates become a local phenomenon, upending the Looters as the headlining act, and moving from Lawnboy to Dave Robbell (Dave Glennon), the English band’s American booker, as their agent.

Their first big gig, though, threatens to become their last. Having seen the Stains rip off one of their songs, “Professsionals”, the Looters strike back by playing “Conned Again” in their opening set. From the perspective of Looters lead singer, Billy (Ray Winstone), the Stains’ appropriation of “Professionals” resulted from a sly seduction by Corinne. He follows “Conned Again” with a tirade about how all of the newly-minted skunks are nothing more than suckers being exploited by Corinne, a moment that mirrors the end of the Stains’ debut. This sparks a mini-riot, culminating in one girl throwing black hair coloring at the Stains’ singer.

The Stains appear finished. As with many rock musicians, it is their, and especially Corinne’s, outsider image that is the ticket to fans and fortune, especially among young girls and women. However, once Billy questions Corinne’s authenticity, the apparent contradictions between their image and their commercial success seem to prompt a fall from grace.

But what makes The Fabulous Stains interesting, and something other than a typical rock-band-destroyed-by-success story, is what happens next.

Corinne had scheduled a live interview with Alicia Meeker for the day after the headlining concert, but the anchor parlayed her stories on Corrine and the Stains into a job with the local station’s national affiliate. Instead of the female host, Corinne finds herself across from Alicia’s on-air partner, an aging, cynical, white guy, Stu McGrath (John Lehne). The interview is short and dismissive. As the would-be rock star exits the studio building, she is met by Billy, who offers comfort by suggesting that she join him on tour. Not surprisingly, Corinne deflects this option, clearly indicating that Billy doesn’t get her in any way.

He turns and leaves, and she is shown in close-up, crying, both angry and sad. As the bus leaves, two skunks on a motorbike turn into the studio parking lot. Corinne follows them with her eyes as they converge with other skunks to play music together. Her tears turn to ones of joy as she realizes that even if Billy, and virtually all of the other men in her life, don’t get it, apparently, the previous night’s events notwithstanding, girls still do. The movie ends with a mock video of a more mature looking Stains performing “Professionals”.

The Fabulous Stains does not offer any easy resolution of the contradictions of rock stardom. Rather than take a side for or against the star, or her success, or her exploitation, or the commercial exploitation of her fans, writer Rob Morton, pen name of Nancy Dowd, who decided not to be associated with the film, and director Lou Adler choose to let their heroine and her story live in the midst of those contradictions.

What makes this approach work is 15-year-old Diane Lane’s performance as Corinne. Simultaneously naïve and hard-edged, she negotiates the tensions inherent in rock stardom as well as anyone ever has on screen. Yes, she wants to make money, but, of course, that money would give her and her sister some control over their lives that they would not have otherwise. Along the same lines, she seems genuine in her desire to bring her message of empowerment to others. When she takes the stage for the big concert, she’s sincerely shocked at the crowd reaction. The tableau of skunks in the parking lot outside the TV studio is heartening to her in an emotional way, but also represents commercial viability. Alicia Meeker embodies these contradictions as well, being both truly drawn to Corrine and seeing her as a passport to bigger and better things.

However, the film’s laser focus on Corinne is also a weakness. The only other character who provides meaningful comment or reflection on stardom is Fee Waybill’s Lou Corpse. This is likely because, as lead singer of the Tubes, he actually is rock star-ish, but he also gets to play the familiar figure of the middle-aged rocker going to seed. Nonetheless, the fact that he seems to know who he is and where he is, or isn’t, going elevates Waybill’s brief turn in the movie. The Looters, the rest of the Stains, and, even, Alicia, are all underdeveloped, although Laura Dern does get a poignant, wordless scene watching her mom (Christine Lahti) being interviewed on television.

The extras on the DVD include two commentary tracks, one with Diane Lane and Laura Dern, and one with Lou Adler, and a photo gallery. The mere existence of the commentary from Lane and Dern is kind of awesome; think of how many stars of Lane’s stature would just assume forget about a movie like this (for Dern, The Fabulous Stains seems more of a piece with her later career), but the two actors primarily just reminisce, fondly recalling people and details from the production. There are brief moments of critical reflection, but mostly the “Oh, look at me” reactions at the beginning set the tone for the track. The two actors are engaging, and obviously enjoyed watching the movie together, and that’s just fine.

Less engaging is Adler’s commentary, which is full of long pauses. These are broken by introductions of actors, sharing of trivia, and some discussion of text and subtext, notably related to the characters and what they represent to rock history. Ultimately, the director’s track is also fine, even if the pauses are sometimes long enough to make you wonder if you’ve accidentally shut it off somehow.

The stills gallery is interesting, and includes a variety of images from the film, from behind the scenes, and publicity shots.

I last saw The Fabulous Stains, I’m guessing, 22 or 23 years ago on USA’s Night Flight, a late-night show that featured an array of underground and alternative video, music, comedy, and film tailor-made for Reagan-era teens like me who didn’t much feel like it was “Morning in America”. There’s a lot I don’t remember from the series, but I have thought about Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains at a number of moments in the intervening decades, and not just in a nostalgic way either.

There’s no question that Corinne and the rest of the Stains were minor crushes for my teenage self. Equally, back then, I don’t think I really got the deconstruction of rock stardom as I do now. But what I’m sure I did get, and what gives the film its lasting resonance, is that it is true to its punk/post-punk subjects. The DIY ethic of the Stains infuses the movie, which is devoid of stars, everyone pretty much makes their names later, and was obviously shot on a shoestring. The presence of Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash, the remaining Looters, also gave the film credibility.

But, above all, is the prescience of making a film in the 1980s about a trio of teen girls who inspire other young girls and women to make music, something noted by both Lane and Dern and by Allison Anders in a short essay packaged with the disc. All three women attest to the film’s influence on the 1990s riot grrrl movement, and I think that even those of us who saw the movie and didn’t become musicians, or are men, undoubtedly felt that it touched on a profound lack or weakness in rock, including its “alternative” streams, namely the subordinate position of women and the relative absence of self-directed female musicians. That absence is no longer as big as it once was, and Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains had some role in making that happen. The fact that the movie still feels relevant means that it was well past time for an updated and accessible home version.

RATING 7 / 10