Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains Review
Whether a film is lost to the ravages time - London After Midnight, for example - long banned or censored - Texas Chainsaw, Last House On The Left, Straw Dogs - or wilfully suppressed by its own maker - A Clockwork Orange, say - the wonder and mystique of the little-seen, little-known production always tends to be a rumour-riddled, mislabelled and misunderstood disappointment when you finally clap eyes upon it. Now Lou (Up In Smoke) Adler's 1981 music-scene curio-cum-road-trip, Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is another such article. Long unavailable on home video - not even legal VHS - although there have been plentiful bootlegs and the odd special screening, the film gets an overdue release on R1 DVD and, if nothing else, is noteworthy for the excellent early performances of Diane Lane and our own Ray Winstone. It tells the tale of a teenage girl punk-rock band whose rage against the system and rebellious spirit kick-starts a brief cult amongst similarly disillusioned girls across America who latch onto their image and take them to their hearts. But, trampled by the deceitful and backstabbing nature of fellow bands, nefarious, pocket-lining managers and a media that uses them all for its own ends, the road to fame and fortune is strewn with pot-holes, traps and obstructions.
You need more than just attitude in this game, darlin'.
Credited as being the foundation stone for the underground “riot grrrl” scene that mirrored the rise of The Go-Gos and is famously cited as an inspiration by Courtney Love and even admired by Jon Bon Jovi (but then he did date Diane Lane in the mid-eighties, so you can easily appreciate why he might have said that), The Fabulous Stains has gained something of an artificial and unjustified “indie-classic” status, egged-on by critical word-of-mouth embellishment that has, inevitably, enlarged its qualities no end. It is neither cutting, nor profound. It tells us nothing new about the gulf between the creative and the managerial, and addresses the hunger for fame and glory of wannabes and the need that a disenfranchised youth, the world over, has for an identity, a fad, a craze and an escape valve with which they can associate with pseudo-cynicism, un-explored motivations and a strange lightness of touch that totally flies-in-the-face of its punk reputation.
But is it actually any good as film, though?
In a word - yes. Though you will have to lower your expectations quite a bit.
But, apart from the expletives bandied about by the mouthy-supremo Ray Winstone and his on-the-road cohorts and a wisely truncated and barely glimpsed sex scene, this could actually play quite happily on a Saturday afternoon. The teen trio of angsty girl rockers, The Stains - Diane Lane's confused and conflicted figurehead Corinne “Third-Degree” Burns, her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter) and Laura Dern's sour-faced cousin Jessica (“I'm changing my name to Peg!”) - may sport the ultra-sexy skunk look (I went out with the girl living beneath just such a provocative hairdo - she was and still is the sexiest thing on Earth!) and strut about on-stage in see-through blouses, black lace panties, bobby-socks and ankle-boots, but their sexuality and feminist rallying cry of WE DON'T PUT OUT seems incredibly naïve and somewhat, dare I say it, conservative after the likes of Madonna, Courtney Love and, gulp, The Spice Girls! Riding the dwindling wave of punk - that the Americans never really understood, anyway - the film and its central characters are also oddly placed in the time-frame of the culture, both out-of-step with trends and far too neat and safe to have ever made a valid difference even within the movement. As Ray Winstone's puts it, without sugaring the pill, “You're just hair!” The Stains are a one-trick pony, a gimmick that has been sold and peddled and forgotten before they have even released a record - but, as director Lou Adler and writer Nancy Dowd (here credited as Rob Morton as she had her name removed from the movie after various disputes and an alleged sexual assault) seem not to realise, we all know this sad, malicious and uncaring truth about the industry anyway. It is all out in the open these days with ridiculous talent shows promoting celebrity buffoonery at every turn, and anyone who watched Top Of The Pops or read Smash Hits back in the early eighties and didn't realise the innate kiddology that was taking place in the medium was actually blissfully lucky in their ignorance. Therefore, even though the cinema presence of such material wasn't exactly saturating the market, the notion of such a cult-breakout still wasn't entirely fresh at the time the film limped out on its seriously limited run.
Despite going on to great things, Laura Dern hardly figures in the story and both she and Kanter are mere set decoration as the two props on either side of Lane's iconic starlet. Lane, undisputedly, is the main attraction. Her transformation from petulant no-hoper to petulant five-second wonder is quite staggering. Although only fifteen, she carries an enormous amount of confidence. The arrogance and defiance of a real teen comes shining through, and this is surely to the credit of the character and Lane's performance of her - but to the detriment of the actual unfolding narrative, I fear. Her cocksure attitude and tempestuous mood-swings are authentic, but her rants don't actually make sense and her sudden turncoat behaviour towards somebody who is actually spilling his guts to her and trying to help her and the group simply doesn't make any logical sense. It is believable that such an angry, self-deluded teen would make such mistakes and do the dirty with regards to her own agenda, but in terms of cinematic storytelling it comes across as ill-conceived, left-field and created merely for effect. Quite why she bites the hand that feeds at a pivotal juncture is beyond me and, frankly, it derails the rags-to-riches format that the film, to this point, has paralleled with reasonable panache. But Lane is still extraordinarily brazen and memorable as Corinne and it is likely that, considering the environment and the phenomenon that she is recreating, her diminutive and arousing figure is precisely the kind of kinky-yet-untouchable lightning bolt that would spark such a revolution.
“At the moment, you're just two white stripes.”
But the single best performance comes from Ray Winstone as the lead singer of the Brit-punk band The Looters, who share the tour with The Stains and the fading rockers The Metal Corpses who are nominally headlining it. With “industry-wink-wink” support from the legendary Sex Pistols' own Paul Cook and Steve Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash - who all acquit themselves admirably with every other word out of their mouths the almost charmingly English “W**ker!” “Tosser!” or “Prat!” - the boy-who-would-be-Beowulf maximises on his turn in Quadrophenia and sings with wild and impressive savagery. There is something about a Brit gobbing-off to the Yanks on their own turf that makes you proud and there is possibly no-one as good at such sneering and intimidating as the young Winstone. He doesn't come anywhere near the power of his Borstal-avenger in Scum - who could? - but once that lip curls up, Emu-style, you just know that someone's going to get a smack. Or two. The voice of both reason and rage, Winstone's Billy swaggers through the film and is a real breath of fresh air. The juxtaposition of his Cockneyisms with the American drawl and his marvellous, go-for-the-throat attitude towards the losers who surround him is a neat smokescreen to the fact - painfully obvious as the film goes by - that he and his crew are now ostensibly as over-the-hill as the hilariously dated and daft Corpses. His sparring with their lead singer, the Kiss-painted Lou, played with enormously entertaining fun by The Tubes' Fee Waybill, is the highpoint of the first half of the film. His persona on-stage, too, is incredibly powerful. Although he only sings a couple of times - and even then it is the same song - he provides terrific presence and a style that could have seen him find equal success as a rock star to that that he found in movies.
“Everybody wanna to go to Heaven, but nobody wanna die.”
Barry Ford's Reggae-playing Rastafarian coach-driver/tour manager, Lawnboy, spouts some Ja-related wisdom that smacks a little too much of story-egging, the film once again descending into the formulaic road-trip odyssey that its theme of rebellion and identity should, but doesn't, work in-tandem with. We hear of his own unique quest and are somehow supposed to be swayed or moved by it - but it doesn't gel, I'm afraid. Ford is a colourful character, though. And elsewhere The Thing's mutating pot-head, Palmer, actor David Clennon phones his performance in - literally, as it happens, being on the receiving end of several confused and aggravated pleas for help from Billy. Playing the distant agent for the bands, he sets himself up as the veritable villain of the piece, chopping and changing their act status on a whim to increase his own profits. Clennon does well, though, with relatively little to do other than react to his aggrieved meal-tickets. But there is some great mileage and sardonic comedy shoehorned-in with the local TV network's front-duo of John Lehne's patronising goofball Stu McGrath and Cynthia Sikes' heavily made-up MILF Alicia Meeker, who takes it upon herself to spearhead the Stains' campaign for world dominance. The pair chart the rise and inevitable fall of the group throughout the film, though it has to be said that idiocy of stupid-Stu alters the tone of the film somewhat.
Even given the low budget nature of the film and the immediacy of the story, itself, Stains is incredibly glib about its own internal structure. We never see the girls rehearse and we only ever hear one of their own songs, the only other track they perform is the one they pilfer from The Looters. Now, this is actually pretty daft when you think about it. People travelling from all over to see the group, and spending all kinds of dosh on emulating their image are going to expect to see a damn sight more of their new idols than just a couple of ill-prepared tracks, no matter how much media manipulation has taken place. Oh, and if you're about to say that we don't see The Looters rehearse or discuss their music either, then this is because, in their case, we clearly don't need to. The Looters, we grasp, have been around the block for a good couple of years and had a hit or two, already. With England cracked they turn their sights on the States, so we know that these guys can perform and come up with the goods. Hell, once Paul Cook lets rip on the drums there could never be any doubts in the house about that.
Dowd's screenplay seems disjointed and airbrushed at times. It is as though he wants the film to succeed on the level of a fable. The road-trip odyssey of The Stains is rendered null and void by the simple lack of the group's internal relationship. Corinne is the star of the band, of course, but from their first embarrassing stage act before a host of big-haired, even bigger-collared geeks in a mill-town club to the risible and ill-fitting MTV video bolted onto the end of the film a full two years after it has been supposedly completed we learn nothing of their band's dynamics, creativity, dreams or glean any sense of their excitement, trepidation or pride at the madcap whirlwind situation they find themselves in. This lack of coherence in the script is only forgivable because of the unmistakable appeal of the lead performers.
“She imitating me!”
“She's better than you, mate ...”
A big surprise is that the film is photographed by the great Bruce Surtees, one of the esteemed vision-catchers that Clint Eastwood use to employ so regularly and effectively on productions like High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Tightrope, Pale Rider and a couple of Dirty Harrys. Here, though, there is not much of that vista-loving lensing that made his name, but then this is not a film that requires it. Set mainly inside clubs, backstage areas or the confines of the tour-bus, Stains doesn't give Surtees much of a chance for flair. However, the grainy, grey cloud-smothered locales of Pittsburgh, actually Vancouver were most of the filming took place, can look supremely atmospheric and truly evocative of a place and a situation that most people would crave to the chance to leave well behind. The unfortunate use of a rooftop rain-machine on the bus and some fake optical rain in front of the camera do let the side down though. Adler's direction is fairly loose but his deliberate lack of flashy-stuff retains the gritty realism and squalor of a life on the road. Many years later, the comedy-drama Still Crazy, with Jimmy Nail, Stephen Rea and Timothy Spall, would tackle exactly the same issues as The Fabulous Stains, only from exactly the opposite end of the spectrum. As a character-study and as an exposé of the music business, as well as a knockabout comedy, it works much, much better than Adler's film. The two are incredibly similar in many ways and it would, perhaps, be a cool double-bill to view them back-to-back.
So, The Fabulous Stains, although constructed in amateur fashion and coming over as just the highlights of a much bigger and more involving story, is actually quite good fun. I was reminded of Helen (Supergirl) Slater's eighties flick The Legend Of Billie Jean, once Corinne's rather half-formed accusation is taken up by the masses and the media transform her into a rogue celebrity, but there was enough sparky banter and amusing scenarios to keep me entertained. The legendary status is not qualified, however, and watching it now it is very hard to see how an new movement for riot grrrrl acts could have been inspired. There just isn't enough grrrrr to it. Whilst I am awarding it a 6 out of 10, fans will doubtlessly be obliged to slap another couple of marks on top. But, as a curious little throwback to a time of transition in style, music and attitude, The Fabulous Stains is actually quite an innocent smirk of a movie. Lou Adler wasn't smirking for long, though. And, after all the trials and tribulations that he went through getting the film made and released, he would never direct another.