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Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)

Dir: Lou Adler, Rhino Entertainment.

by Mary Hanlon

Director Lou Adler’s long lost cult classic, nearly thirty years old, provides the missing link in Rock 'N' Roll films. With limited festival screenings, late night TV spots, and this criminally delayed DVD, few have had the opportunity to experience this treasure.

What separates The Fabulous Stains from many cult films are its superior aesthetic qualities, its all star/ rock star cast, and, well, the fact that it went on to inspire many, many female garage bands in the 1980s with its ground breaking-style—numerous riot-grrrl bands cite The Stains as a seminal inspiration. Director Lou Adler is no stranger to the music business, having founded various record labels, managed a string of bands (The Mammas and the Papas among them), and produced the monumental Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He directed Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke, produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games. Here Adler worked with Robert Altman’s editor Lou Lombardo, who seems to have guided the erratically competent cinematography. Stains proves a singular mix of high/low ideas and high/low visual presentation. Sometimes Adler’s shots are weirdly crude, sometimes weirdly sophisticated. His on-again, off-again competency perfectly compliments his characters’ quest for rock and roll stardom.

Adler begins the tale in the dead-end shithole of Jonestown PA, a town famous for being wiped out by an 1889 flood. Corrine ‘3rd degree’ Burns (incarnated unforgettably by fifteen-year-old-jailbait Diane Lane after Jodie Foster turned down the role), a recently orphaned teen, ends up on television after she raises hell and quits her job as a fry cook, declaring: "This town’s been dead for a long time!" She catches the attention of thousands of alienated young rural girls who send letters to the local TV station quoting, "She said what I think about all day long."

Diane Lane was a badass. Who knew? Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Diane Lane was a badass. Who knew? Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

As a platform for her alienation, Corrine forms (or claims to form) a band, The Fabulous Stains of the title. The Stains are Corrine, her sister, and cousin Jessica (12 year old Laura Dern, who successfully sued for legal emancipation from her mom so she could go off to Canada to shoot the film). No one seems to understand that The Stains can’t actually play (the factual narrative is sometimes murky even as the emotional valence is always clear). The Stains, capitalizing on Corrine’s cult status, land a spot on a cross-country tour with two other bands: The Metal Corpses, an aging hair band from the Seventies riding out their one-hit wonderdom and The Looters, an English punk band hoping to break big in America.

The Corpses lead singer and shreddin’ guitarist are played by The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick, who also played organ for The Grateful Dead. They provide creepily authentic portrayals of aging rockers. There are two remarks by Waybill currently in competition for best line in this film: 1: As Waybill is reminiscing about his hot night with the group's one, aging fan, he remarks, with white crust in the corners of his mouth, that she was ‘like nectar except her kid was screaming all night’, and, 2: Fee applies eyeliner in his dressing room while poetically declaiming that he has so much unharnessed emotion inside of him sometimes he just has to hit his old lady. This is followed by:" Some women are into that, you know." Fee is classically classic.

The Looters lead singer is Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Departed). The Sex Pistol's Steve Jones and Paul Cook and The Clash's Paul Simonon make up the rest of the band. Their home is a tour bus painted Jamaican colors, driven by their music promoter/manager Lawn Boy (Barry Ford), a Rastafarian philosopher. Lane and Dern's vulnerable, barely pubescent performances are no act and what should be jarring dissonant elements in the film – the girls’ inexperience, the all too genuine rock and roll background and Adler’s weirdly melodramatic style -- bizarrely complement one another.

Can we talk about the fact that Diane Lane is a total badass? Who knew? This film actually excuses her for making Must Love Dogs. During the Stains’ first performance, Lane walks onto the stage in a red beret and oversized gray coat, and after the girls are booed because they can’t play, Lane removes her hat and coat to reveal black and white spiked hair, red flame eye makeup, a see through lace blouse-sans-bra and black underwear, captivating the audience, and the film's cult following. Lane simultaneously launched the lingerie-as clothing-fashion trend, and the skunk hair that was predominant in the 1980s subculture. You have to see her to believe the aplomb with which Lane pulls this shit off; her eyes look a hundred years old, and as an actress she knows no shame. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to discover who did what first, and to experience the push-pull of Adler’s false direction and the profoundly true and far-reaching cultural effects of the film. It’s impossible to watch The Stains without experiencing both, like, constantly.

Image surpasses talent, and The Stains become an overnight success. A female newscaster sees the girls on the news—following the overdose and death of The Metal Corpses lead guitarist—and promotes the girls on her broadcast. The films slogan "These girls created themselves," clearly became an inspiration to young girls—in the film and during the time in which the film came out, as prime a case of art imitating life imitating art as you’re going to find. Courtney Love lists herself as the film’s foremost fan…enough said.

The band guys, once sooo superior to The Stains, find themselves surpassed by the females. And, just as The Looters regarded The Metal Corpses as useless old wankers, The Stains consider The Looters (who are all of like, eight years older) to be aging pussies. The Looters fail to see the irony in this indictment, and Adler surely observed this tiny tragedy played out in tour buses and recording studios all over this great land. The original script was titled: All Washed Up and further role reversal occurs as the once- headlining Corpses die off and The Stains steal the spotlight from The Looters.

Adler uses few professional actors, which works in the film’s favor, and the soundtrack is authentic -all songs were performed by the cast members, including the reggae songs by Barry Ford. In other words, that’s Diane fucking fifteen-year-old Lane doing her own vocals! The Looters rip ass, as you might expect and it took some serious shameless punk aggression for actor Ray Winstone to get up there in front of the most intimidating guitar/drums/bass combo in the world. He more than holds his own as Jones/Cook/Simonon rage around him. (If his performance of pure undiluted hostility moves you, be sure to rent his film debut as a reform school psychopath in 1977’s Scum). It's hard to believe the film was not well received, and its style, music and overall concept are still wildly popular, proving the film's image to be more than just a trend. 1982 just wasn't ready for it.


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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