(1981) dir. Lou Adler
An anomolous little early 1980’s “grrrl-power” movie, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, is a fun, grungy critique of media manipulation and the power of identity, with a good dose of punk rock.
This film was one of the films on rotation on the USA network’s great 1980’s late night show, Night Flight, along with Rude Boy (1980) and Liquid Sky (1982). Somehow, I never watched it back then, which is a shame because I think it is a pretty cool movie.
Starring the unbelievably beautiful (and unbelievably young) Diane Lane along with Ray Winstone as a low-rent Joe Strummer, and an also very young Laura Dern as the Stains’ bassist, the film is crammed with interesting folks. Winstone’s punk band is pretty all-star, featuring Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash, they play some authentic-sounding English punk tunes and ride the tour bus with Fee Waybill of the Tubes, who plays the washed-up 1970’s metal rocker.
The film opens on a television studio set with a host who is looking retrospectively at Corrine (Lane), interviewing her as a rebellious kid whose mother has just passed away. The film is very much about the media, and starting off by seeing Corrine through the media lens, it’s clear the she already knows how to manipulate the camera and the audience, playing up to the questions with snarkiness. But also what is interesting is the feel of her character, with her sister and cousin (Dern), these small-town teens, who want to escape their world, but not by “putting out”. They only join the bands on tour as a band themselves, a band that has only practiced a couple of times and doesn’t even have a percussionist.
Corrine turns out to be a true provocateur, capable of striking chords with the audience even when the Stains’ music is almost less than rudimentary. As she gains confidence and style, she begins to eclipse the world-wisened Winstone and his band the Looters. Director Lou Adler and writer Nancy Dowd show the capriciousness of popular culture along with the power that comes with the manipulation of it. Alont with Waybill’s washed-up rocker, Barry Ford’s Lawn Boy, a down and out reggae musician who doubles as bus driver and tour manager is another glimpse of the music industry, older and wiser, but with his best pal in jail. There is a lot going on in this world of critique.
And if that was all there was, it might be a bit preachy, but along with that, there is the empowerment of girls, by self-creation, self-awareness and individuality. Corrine might fall into the traps that lie within the media, becoming a product and losing herself to an extent, but she walks away from it all having changed things for some girls, making the statement that “every girl should be given a guitar when she turns thirteen”. And it’s kind of cool that the music that the Stains play isn’t purely rock’n’roll, but a bit odd with their percussionless guitars. It’s not a bad message, and one that could still resonate today.
But also, one of the films charms is in its visual settings. It’s always raining. It’s always on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s 1981, for goodness sakes, and Diane Lane looks like she’s 13. Man!