One of the lines that best sums up Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains arrives when the film’s main character, teenage punk singer Corinne Burns (Diane Lane), gives an interview to a TV news crew. Her band The Stains are about to become an overnight sensation, but the first night of their tour supporting up-and-coming English rockers The Looters and has-beens The Metal Corpses – two all-male bands – ends in tragedy: Metal Corpses guitarist Jerry Jervey has overdosed and died backstage. Corinne displays her preternatural ability for conjuring up media soundbites and rhetoric by flippantly telling a reporter ‘He was an old man in a young girl’s world’, much to the chagrin of a male, conservative, sexist news anchor. And yet this is the world of LAGTFS: the male bands are petty, uninteresting dinosaurs when compared to the spirited, confident and outspoken Stains, and there’s a sense throughout that nothing can deny Corinne and her youthful bandmates (guitarist/sister Tracy, played by Marin Kanter, and bassist/friend Jessica, played Laura Dern). However, this being a rise-and-fall type of picture there’s still plenty of material that ruminates on next-big-things being chewed up and spat out by the pop machine, and as the story’s influenced by punk the question of selling out predictably arrives as soon as The Stains begin to appear on posters.
Though The Stains are American, Writer Nancy Dowd – who is listed in the credits as Rob Morton because she disapproved of the final cut – was inspired by the English band The Slits, one of the most interesting and progressive of all of the mid-to-late-1970’s punk bands (journalist and artist Caroline Coon, who knew The Slits and other bands of that era, served as a technical advisor during production). Dowd sets her three protagonists up as working class girls from the fictional town of Charlestown, Pennsylvania; it’s a place where the steel industry is dying, and the trio have few job prospects as a result. Music is a means of escaping the dreary surroundings, and Corinne has formed a band despite the fact that none of them can play their instruments (as always with films about wannabe musicians they improve as time elapses) and – going against the norm – they don’t have a drummer. She is initially inspired by The Looters, who play at a local venue. This visiting band of British punks are basically The Sex Pistols in all but name, working their way towards disintegration on the road as a gruelling tour of the US takes its toll. In fact two former members of the Pistols appear as members of The Looters – drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones – and they’re joined by Paul Simonon of The Clash on bass and a young Ray Winstone, who plays vocalist Billy as a cross between Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten. The casting of real musicians lends a degree of authenticity to the stage performances by The Looters, and the three in question manage to avoid disgracing themselves when called upon to act.
The film’s notable first and foremost for its strong feminist stance, its attitude and its spirit, which is all manifest through the words and deeds of Corinne and her bandmates. Lane’s character is a strong presence on stage, refusing to pander to expectations or apologise for wearing revealing outfits while defiantly haranguing audience members for not being able to understand her. The character is just as interesting when she’s not performing: smart, funny and ready to tell just about anyone who patronises her to fuck off. Naturally as The Stains become more famous, and are shifted to the top of the bill as a result, the male musicians surrounding them struggle to accept the change in fortunes (particularly the egotistical Billy). As such the film highlights the level of sexism present at the time within the male-dominated music industry and the media, and this is something Corinne and her band tackle head on, so it’s a shame – and perhaps something to do with record producer Lou Adler’s presence as director – that The Stains are advised by men throughout before eventually allowing themselves to be repackaged and marketed as a softer bubblegum pop act (though there is at least some rejection of this by Corinne, as well as the band’s clued-up fans).
A test screening in Denver did not go well at all, and the film suffered a troubled period of gestation as a result. A revised ending was shot two years after filming initially wrapped – Lane and Dern are clearly older – and in this new footage the band is presented as a kind of watered-down MTV version of their earlier incarnation, their rough edges somewhat blunted and their outfits much more colourful and kid-friendly. Perhaps the director thought he could create a new version of The Monkees for the 1980s, complete with crossover hits and a TV spin-off, but unfortunately Adler’s finished film turns the band into a bland Josie And The Pussycats tribute act. Coon was critical of the way he handled the ending, but wrote that Dowd’s message of Women’s Liberation survives ‘despite the depredations inflicted on it … by the director’s Hollywood misogyny’. (For what it’s worth in their commentary for the film’s DVD release both Lane and Dern said they felt excited by the new ending at the time because they could see the link between The Stains and acts who were appearing on MTV in real life, such as Madonna and The Go-Gos.) Despite the re-shoot LAGTFS never received a proper release, and only belatedly made it to DVD in 2008, but it still managed to pick up a cult following in the years that followed, famously inspiring musicians like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna in the late 1980s. It is ramshackle, and at times shoddily-made, but that’s part of the charm and it fits perfectly with the nature of the music and the band concerned. Some of the actors struggle – Barry Ford as tour manager Lawnboy, for example – but all of that’s kind of beside the point. The film’s worth cherishing because of its attitude and its strong feminist agenda, it has bags of energy and spirit from start to finish, and it’s an effective satire on the music industry and the media. Plus … where else can you see a crowd made up entirely of teenage girls all simultaneously giving the finger to a sneering Ray Winstone?
Directed by: Lou Adler.
Written by: Nancy Dowd.
Starring: Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Marin Kanter, Ray Winstone, Paul Simonon, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Fee Waybill, Barry Ford.
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees.
Editing: Tom Benko.
Running Time: 87 minutes.