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A SECOND LOOK

'Fabulous' determination

The 1982 film still issues a call for young women to make their own kind of music.

September 14, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

ONE OF the many prescient lines uttered by Corinne Burns, the New Wave Lolita played by Diane Lane in 1982's "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains," comes after the drug-induced death of a has-been bass player in the ladies' room of a scummy Northeastern nightclub. "He was an old man in a young girl's world," she sneers to a local TV reporter.

That sentence sums up the motivating tension in this long-lost treasure of a rock film. Old boys clinging to the phallic romance of loud guitars versus young girls burning to claim and reimagine its power -- that struggle defines "The Fabulous Stains," making it stand out among the many cinematic explorations of rock's anarchic life force.

The film tells the story of Corinne, the type of girl who would have ridden on the back of some thug's motorcycle in the pre-feminist 1950s, who finds brief superstardom fronting the Stains, a band she forms with her sister and cousin, in the 1980s, just as feminism and punk are coming together. Corinne is a Lolita figure, not just because she's young and brattily ravishing, but because her drive is the kind that annihilates "old farts" whose misogyny would destroy lesser girls.

Fired from her fast-food job and left adrift after the death of her mother, Corinne talks her way onto a national tour with the Metal Corpses, a decaying prog-rock band, and the Looters, an upstart punk group just past its prime. Corinne's confrontational fashion sense and her impromptu coining of a resonant slogan -- proclaiming that she's "perfect" but nobody "gets" her "because I don't put out!" -- inspires a rabid following among young girls.

Armed with more media-friendly ripostes and a stunning striped hairstyle, she rises to the top, only to topple almost immediately. Yet the impact of her music and attitude resonates beyond the final frame.

Made on the cheap by director-producer Lou Adler as a follow-up to his only other feature, Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke," "The Fabulous Stains" shares the rough-edged style and rebellious spirit of other post-punk-era rock films such as the Ramones-centric "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and the similarly obscure "Smithereens." Its cast impresses now, but at the time the film was made nearly everyone was an amateur.

Lane was only 15, and Laura Dern, who plays a bandmate, was 12. Ray Winstone, excellent as Lane's musical rival and love interest, had barely acted in films and had never sung. Steve Cook, Paul Jones, Paul Simonon and Fee Waybill, who play key band members, had barely if ever acted.

Music industry cred

Adler's hefty music-biz resume -- he produced Carole King's "Tapestry" and the Monterey pop festival and had a hand in many other history-making gambles -- led him to emphasize the aspects of the story that darkly satirized the rock 'n' roll dream. But the script contains another seed. Nancy Dowd, who'd won an Oscar in 1979 for "Coming Home," wrote it as a love letter to girls like herself, who'd fought to escape their small-town lives; she'd been further inspired by the feminist punk journalism of Caroline Coon, who served as a consultant on the film.

Dowd's screenplay and Coon's styling infuse "The Fabulous Stains" with a tempestuous female energy that earns the overused kudo "subversive."

Corinne's lines read like the lyrics of songs by feminist punk heroines Courtney Love, L7 and Bikini Kill. Late in the movie, she even declares that "every citizen should get an electric guitar when she turns 16," a slogan adapted to real life by today's national music education movement Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. Many of the women behind Rock Camp and "riot grrrl" were, in fact, inspired by "The Fabulous Stains."

A total flop when released theatrically, it became a cult favorite among music fans, passed around on well-worn VHS tapes and very occasionally screened on late-night TV. Whether or not that's what Adler and Dowd intended, "The Fabulous Stains" became part of the groundswell that led younger women to take up the punk torch and made the 1990s the decade of Women in Rock.

This DVD reissue isn't perfect. Its commentary tracks (one by Adler and another by Lane and Dern) aren't that insightful, and a 2000 documentary on the film co-directed by its greatest champion, the late indie-feminist filmmaker Sarah Jacobson, is absent, though you can view it on the film's promotional website.

In 87 minutes of spare dialogue and gloomily illuminated neo-realist scenes, "The Fabulous Stains" manages to be several movies at once: a road movie, dwelling lovingly on the dilapidated band bus and its Rastafarian driver (played by Barry Ford, who also composed much of the film's music); an "All About Eve"-style tale of entertainment-industry fickleness; a melodrama that nods to the "women's movies" of Douglas Sirk and the teen angst classics of Nicholas Ray; and a media satire indebted to Sidney Lumet's "Network." But most of all, it's a chick flick. That is, if you're the kind of chick who won't cry when an old man expires in the ladies' room.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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