Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is one of those films that nearly didn’t make it this far. Nobody seems to remember it from first time around in 1981, when it enjoyed only a fleeting release in a handful of US cities; MTV and other youth-oriented channels used it as cheap programming throughout the 1980s, ensuring it would earn a cult following that looked unlikely at first glance. The film’s only print is said to have been saved by a projectionist in an L.A. arthouse theatre.
The film is the tale of a trio of teenage girls, two sisters and one cousin from small-town Pennsylvania who enjoy a meteoric rise to punk stardom and a fall almost as rapid. It launched the careers of Diane Lane and Laura Dern, both fine actresses whose promise has been stymied by Hollywood’s narrow demands. And it ended the film career of director Lou Adler, the legendary music producer whose second film this was after the Cheech and Chong vehicle, Up in Smoke. Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill has hailed the film as the most realistic and profound film she has ever seen, a summary you have to take with a grain of salt but you can see what she means. Adler’s involvement, and that of feminist journo Caroline Coon as consultant, helps the film skirt reality, always at one or two removes from it but never straying too far afield. At times it looks like a more fantastical John Boorman film, with a dollop of Hal Ashby’s bemused humanism thrown in (the script was written by Nancy Dowd, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for Ashby’s Coming Home).
The film is literally a mess, though not an uninteresting one. And it’s hard to figure out whether it was intended as a mess or not, and, if not, where it started to turn into one. The production was afflicted with the familiar discontent of conflicting artistic views, with Dowd withdrawing her name from the screenwriting credit, and the end of the film has a strange epilogue that is confusingly at odds with the rest of the narrative, in which the girls are resurrected with bigger, cleaner hair and kitted out in buxom shoulder pads in anticipation of the serious business of the 1980s to come. The dialogue is as undercooked as the film’s message is half-baked: a patchwork of inspired hooks, clichéd rockisms and ad-libbing so banal it makes you scream out for Spinal Tap. Everything happens very quickly, with no real transition to give you your bearings. But it’s best just to go along with it, as there are rewards to be had.
Corinne ‘Third Degree’ Burns, played by Lane, is the centrepiece of the film and the group The Fabulous Stains. Embittered following the loss of her mother she inadvertently sparks a cult following on local television following a brief appearance on the news. She then forms a band and runs away with the circus when approached to support ageing rockers Metal Corpse and Brit upstarts The Looters (Paul Simonen of The Clash, a young Ray Winstone and former Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones). The band can’t sing, can’t play and look awful, as the old Kit Kat ad would have it, but they’ll go a long way. They strike on a unique look, with peroxide-striped hair that leads to them baptising themselves, the ‘skunks’. They adopt the quasi-mystical ‘we don’t put out’ as a motto, an ingenious piece of branding that resists analysis and their image almost accidentally generates a torrent of merchandising that comes back to haunt them. Corinne sleeps with Winstone’s Billy, turning him unwittingly into a groupie when she heartlessly steals The Looters’ best song and The Stains leapfrog them to the top of the bill. There are echoes of the real world throughout the film: the Looters’ song that is stolen is called ‘The Professionals’ also the name of the group Cook and Jones formed at the time; Billy confesses to being illiterate, which mirrors Jones’ experience, who only learned to read after the break-up of the Pistols; when Billy castigates the Stains’ audience for being ‘lied to’ it’s an obvious nod to Johnny Rotten’s notorious comment ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ at the Pistols’ last concert in San Francisco in 1978.
It all goes awry for the Stains, chewed up and spat out by the same industry and the media that encouraged their rapid rise, just like The Shaggs, the late-60s all-girl rock group that many people see as a model for The Stains. The film is unusual in that it not only provides a feminist critique of the music industry but also serves up a heroine of such moral ambivalence. A sneaking regard for Corinne is possible but it’s hard to completely love her. And underneath the ‘gritty camp’, that makes the whole thing look like a blue-collar Russ Meyer film with smaller breasts, is a surprising realistic sensibility. The girls hail from the same small-town Pennsylvania of heaving steel mills that also provided the working-class heroes of The Deerhunter, a part of the States soon to be known as the rust belt. The girls have few prospects in life and the most moving scene in the film comes when Dern’s mother, played by Christine Lahti, regrets in a television interview always putting her daughter down, just as her own parents had put her down before them. It’s a brief detour into a mournful actuality, one that almost makes up for the injustice done to the band in the cutthroat world of the music business.
Originally published by Under the Influence.