“We need to make being poor cool again.” – John Waters, This Filthy World (2006)
The 1980s was really the last decade of true grime cinema. The unusual and corrupted sadly disappeared in the tide of national gentrification. And, reluctantly or not in film, dilapidated city life was traded for Rob Reiner-esque Americana. The vanguard of modern film-making was eventually traded for censor-safe subjects. And, it, and its sister world of contemporary art, really stopped being daring.
Director Lou Adler’s and writer Nancy Dowd’s über-obscure punk rock epic, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains was already probably considered passé when it was released in late 1982 (Dowd’s pseudonymous writing credit, Rob Morton, symbolized her displeasure with the final product). Although it came out around the same time as the similarly grimy, low-budget punk-themed movies, Smithereens and Times Square, post-punk and New Wave had already started taking over as the next musical epoch. The chord combinations too few, the angst too redundant, and the drugs too plentiful were punk’s problems. Shot over a two year period, it was released to near-obscurity, even with its ties to well-known music icons and convenient timing (Mtv was born), and it only just made the transition to DVD last month. As a movie that really isn’t all that original — it centers around the the triumphant marriage of music and youth rebellion — the significance of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains lies in showing just how far from drawing lines in the sand film-making has become lately. While it arrived long after curtains closed on the first wave of punk, it did arrived in time to be part of the last vestiges of grime cinema.
Diane Lane was just 15 when she starred as Corrine Burns, the typically baffling, teenage “misfit” orphan turned equally baffling superstar heroine in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The film opens with a reporter interviewing the distant teenager as a follow-up to her minor stardom when she was seen on the news being fired at the fast food place where they were doing a story. Shocked by her indifference more than her having to absorb continuous disappointment, the reporter finishes the interview with that typical rhetorical question so replete with disgust and demand: “What are you going to do with your life?!” (Cue the Kelly “Shoes” video!)
Corrine envisions future celebrity and her novice, three-piece all-girl punk band, The Stains (which features a mere 13-year old Laura Dern as “Peg”), are their only ticket out of dingy, hopeless Dodge. “Were there even girl bands before this movie?” Diane Lane asks on the DVD commentary (the Lane-Dern commentary is a great additional feature), frequently citing this movie as the inspiration for a lot of bands’ sound and image. It sounds like an excessively self-congratulatory claim, but it’s especially possible that The White Stripes drew on this movie for plenty of their retro red-and-white imagery. But to answer Diane’s question… yes, there were the Runaways, the girls who didn’t give a damn about their bad reputations. However, the angst-ridden girl bands never really came about in full effect until much later, and most notably with the Riot Grrrl period in the 90s.
But Corrine’s escape from Dodge as the band gains minor success is not without cynicism, hardened further by the two bands they tour with. Tubes lead singer Fee Way Bill and guitarist Vince Welnick played The Metal Corpses, an aged duo of extremely self-indulgent 70s rockers who desperately ignore their obsolescence. The other band is the British punk outfit, The Looters, which featured Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, and ex-Clash guitarist Paul Simonon, while Ray Winestone (who most recently played Frank Costello’s, Mr. French, in The Departed) takes the lead as the band’s frontman, Billy. They all compete with one another in their bid to be famous and even the most well-meaning can be corrupted; everyone’s got a price.
But the Stains, as young girls never taken seriously to begin with, use outrageousness, rejection, and altruism to their advantage, and like the characters in Time Square and The Legend of Billie Jean, they eventually become the headlining success. Not surprisingly, their fan base are screaming crowds of equally alienated teenage girls, something that might be called neo-feminism, had the loyalists who adopted the band’s look (they call it “Going Skunk”) and slogans and lyrics not been shallow followers. And breaking their devotion takes no more than a simple, obvious warning from an unlikely source: Billy who reveals just how shallow they are. That the spectacle had gotten too far out of hand. (The Stain’s big hit single, “The Professionals,” (actually a Sex Pistols original) was stolen from Billy).
Diane Lane, on the DVD commentary, suggests that this is a film in dire need of a remake. Dirty word that “remake” might be, that grimy Bohemia, the drastic differences in the music industry then and now, and the silliness of a youth rebellion epic would probably get lost in translation if anyone tried to update the story. Sadly, there are few films anymore that really depict the relationship between music and youth as a driving social force, especially where the central characters are teenagers. The closest it has really come lately, at least in more popular film.
“You can’t make a movie like this anymore,” Laura Dern accurately observed. It featured plenty that would set off conservative censors today: the fighting was authentic because stunt people weren’t hired, the kids were shown to be chain smokers, and even at 15, Diane Lane was filmed partially nude for a brief shower romance with Billy. Grime cinema was low-budget, and daring was the default because on the one hand, controversy drew the cult appeal (look at John Water’s catalog of films), and on the other, because there wasn’t much money and expertise in making the films (see Susan Seidleman’s acclaimed debut feature film, Smithereens). The era of grime cinema produced a lot of shitty films (although so did those outside of that context), but it also produced a lot of cult films of note. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains probably isn’t likely to generate a sudden rise in notoriety, even with the careers that Diane Lane and Laura Dern have both established for themselves, but it is at least a glimpse into where the limitations of the medium used to be (music-wise, too). American films today are too clean and even those considered the new avant garde within the last decade alone have more often been visually daring rather than topically so.
Filed under: 80s movies, commentary, cult flicks and obscure picks, indie, punk!, reviews, teenage timebomb | Tagged: american movies, Diane Lane, Fee Way Bill, girls in punk, grime cinema, Ladies and Gentlmen the Fabulous Stains, Laura Dern, loss of the avant garde, Lou Adler, Mary Dowd, punk movies, Ray Winstone, the Sex Pistols, the Tubes | 2 Comments »