Today, Rhino Home Video releases Ladies And Gentlemen,The Fabulous Stains. This is the first time the movie has ever been available for home viewing officially. Since its limited release in 1981 the film has pretty much only lived on in the minds of cult fans. My own experience with it was seeing it on Night Flight years ago and having had a grainy bootleg video of it. Everyone from perpetual train wreck Courtney Love to Kathleen Hannah have weighed in on the film’s importance. And to read the accolade you’d get the idea that Ladies And Gentlemen,The Fabulous Stains was a diamond that was buried under the shit-tastes of the public. And you’d be half right but backward. In reality, the film is kind of a piece of shit with a few diamond moments. But the diamonds make it all worthwhile. Seriously.
First, the bad:
-the plot (two teenage girls form a rock band with their cousin after the death of the first two’s mother, band is long on attitude and proto-Riot Grrrl agitprop, band gets popular, is turned on by fans, finds a few faithfuls remaining and changes image in new wave of popularity and self-assurance) is ploddingly disorganized. Between bits of Corrine “Third Degree” Byrns (actress Diane Lane) legitimately standing up for herself against sexist, authoritarian rockers and journalists there are ridiculous sequences of an older rocker dying of a drug overdose, Fee Waybill waxing to Ray Winstone (AKA Billy, lead singer of The Looters in the film) about how he’d done it all before and this punk shit wasn’t anything new and the bizarre inclusion of a Jah worshipping, Rastafarian bus driver named “Lawnman” who keeps the whole show on the road. Although the feminist message of the film isn’t completely obscured it’s certainly muddied up.
-The gimmicks: Simply put, this steals too much, and too obviously, from too many other films. The ever present reggae music is ripped from Rude Boy; the fan rebellion against The Stains is straight out of Tommy; The ‘girls form band after family problems’ theme is ripped from Times Square.
– After rejecting Lawnman’s demand that the entire group wear vinyl body suits, Byrnes goes a step further. and begins wearing high-cut leotards, see-through shirts and high heels. It’s not a contradiction because her initial rejection of Lawnman’s costuming wasn’t anti-sex or anti-sexiness. She was rejecting Lawnman’s attempt to package The Stains of his own accord. However, she ups the ante considerably by displaying her body in a much more revealing way but consistently saying, “I don’t put out!”. Further, in the film Byrnes explains this attitude as meaning “Don’t get had.” The point is it’s her body and if she wants to show it off she will, but only on her terms. It’s quite powerful and one of the resounding points of the film.
-Fee Waybill is a scene stealing in much of this. His Kiss-styled costuming and dinosaur rock band are detail perfect in depicting what punk was supposed to overthrow. Also, the manager of The Looters, who eventually jumps ship to ride The Satins coattails, is pretty fairly depicted as half slimeball/half hard worker who, at The Looters insistence, manages to get Black Randy as an opening act on their tour. Unbeknownst to him, though, Billy and Corrine had begun a predictable love affair and Billy wants The Stains as the opener (video sequence here).
I could write for hours about Ladies And Gentlemen,The Fabulous Stains, but I won’t. There are things in it that I mull over and over.
-Is Corrine’s provocative dress merely a one-dimensional self-costuming rejection of a man attempting to dress her up or is it a total subversion (i.e. mind fuck) played on the audience by disturbing the traditional deduction of slutty-clothes=slutty girl?
-Is it to the Stains credit that the groups biggest musical success comes via a song Corrine stole from Billy or is it the case that the film makes the tired point that girls don’t play or write as well as boys? Further, is Corrine’s relationship with Billy a political statement concerning a woman’s control via sex or is it cliched trickery whereby the dumb guy falls for slutty girl and winds up being ripped off in the process?
-Given all this, is it possible that the filmmakers simply inadvertently went back and forth between traditional roles and radical statements and ultimately got confused over what they were saying? (This seems possible, especially consider that writer Nancy Dowd left the production after being groped by a camera man.) At one time I had an idea that the confusion of the film was supposed to be indicative of the confusion of the teenage mind but I’m pretty sure I was over thinking the issue.
All that said: Ladies And Gentlemen,The Fabulous Stains is not a waste of your time at all. It’s funny, sad, sometimes shockingly poignant and also features Laura Dern, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Paul Simonon.
As a film it can be pretty awful but as a statement, and ultimately as art, it succeeds.