Allow me to rave about a fringe movie, one that may only appeal to a handful of people who read this. But fringe is what I do, so don’t try to stop me. Actually, to say Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains is a fringe movie is a bit of a laughable understatement. It’s crusty, it’s dank, it’s weird, it’s punk as fuck. It’s not for everyone. Even so, I’m going to throw caution and decorum to the wind and insist that you see it, every last one of you. Many of you will sense its importance, and some of you might just feel its transcendence.
Fans of Diane Lane (who plays Stains singer Corinne “Third Degree” Burns) or Laura Dern (playing Stains bass player Jessica “Peg” McNeil) might also dig seeing them in some of their earliest movie roles. It was the second film for both of them. Lane’s first, A Little Romance, made a big splash in 1979 and landed her on the cover of TIME magazine. She had just turned 15 when they began filming The Fabulous Stains. Laura Dern was even younger (12!), with a small part in 1979’s B movie classic, Foxes, to her credit.
Also appearing in the film are the enigmatic Marin Kanter (as Stains guitar player and Corinne’s sister, Tracy Burns), Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, Paul Simonon of the Clash (all as members of the band The Looters), Ray Winstone (as Billy, the singer of the looters), Fee Waybill from the Tubes (as Lou Corpse), Barry Ford (as Lawnboy), Elizabeth Daily (as Motel Maid), Christine Lahti (as Aunt Linda), and a cast of hundreds of sparkly young girls.
The film was directed by Lou Adler, who directed only two films, this one, and Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. Adler was a bigwig in the music business, having founded Dunhill and Ode Records, big labels in the 60s and 70s. He’s managed dozens of groups and won Grammys. He’s no slouch in the music business, but perhaps he wasn’t born to be a movie director.
He may, however, have been born to direct this film.
On the surface, The Fabulous Stains is a rock and roll B movie rags to riches story. Originally titled All Washed Up, the script was written by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Nancy Dowd, who was disappointed that her scripted ending, where the Stains achieved success, was not filmed. Oh, and she was sexually assaulted by at least one crew member during production. Maybe not surprisingly, she chose to have her name removed from the credits.
It’s sad that grope-y Hollywood assholes marred the making of a film with such a strong feminist statement, but we were four decades away from #metoo, and Hollywood was, and likely still is, a towering dung heap of hyper-inflated, rotting male egos. As has been proven time and time and time again.
Almost two years after production had finished, Adler shot a faux music video ending for the film. So ultimately, the Stains were successful, but the film wasn’t. It tested poorly with audiences. They didn’t know what the hell to make of it. I’m not surprised the film tested poorly, and honestly, no one involved in it should have been. It isn’t for the typical shopping mall crowd (are there still shopping malls?). But for anyone interested in the music or the era or the later Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement—some of whose key members have cited this film as inspiration—it’s essential viewing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a B movie, yes, but one that expertly and uncannily captures many truths about the music business, perhaps more so than any other “rock and roll” film ever made.
From the less-than-successful punk band the Looters to the even less successful—but once famous—glam/metal band, The Metal Corpses, the film is populated by real-world characters, and the look and feel capture that world and that era incredibly well. I credit Adler’s music business experience with supplying the stark, unflinching reality. No director who hadn’t lived some of this stuff could have possibly recreated it.
The film never played to mass audiences; in fact, legend has it that only two 35mm prints were ever made, and as of a few years ago, only one of the tattered prints survived, occasionally making its way to festivals and revival houses. But in the early 1980s, a couple of cable channels aired it, bootleg VHS copies were made, and from there, The Fabulous Stains clawed its way into the consciousness of many who saw it and earned its cult classic status.
I made my own VHS copy from the lone pay channel in my apartment building, ON-TV, in the early 80s. I dragged that tape around the country with me for 20 years, showing it to people whenever I could. Few appreciated it as much as I did, but I always blamed that on the awful quality of the tape rather than my (or their) possible lack of taste.
In 2008, Rhino Entertainment released a DVD version of The Fabulous Stains, and it is a joy to behold. There was also a Blu-ray version released last year, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see it. You can also watch it on Amazon Prime Video and probably other streaming services. The 2008 DVD is a widescreen transfer, which makes this the first time the film can be seen as it was shot unless you were one of the three dozen people to see it in a theater.
The film is more than 40 years old, so it doesn’t have DOLBY THX+ Wraparound Spectrum 4D ThunderSound™, and although there is a 5.1 home theater audio setting, much of the sound in the film is definitely low-budget indie. So you may have to back up a few times to pick up a garbled line here and there or to understand some of the British speakers or the Jamaican patois spoken by the Lawnboy character (the only male character, incidentally, who is supportive of the Stains).
The DVD is thin on “bonus” material, but it does have a couple of commentary tracks. The one by Adler is inconsequential, but the other, by Lane and Dern, is wonderful. Apparently, the Blu-ray has more extensive extras.
Interestingly, a “making of” short exists but is not included in the 2008 DVD extras. The only place you can find it is as an extra on a documentary about the rainbow wig “John 3:16” guy who used to be on camera at every major sports event in the 70s and 80s. He eventually wound up barricaded in a hotel room with a hostage threatening to shoot planes on the runway at LAX (surprise?) and is now serving multiple life sentences. It’s a mystery why The Making of The Fabulous Stains is on there, but at least it’s somewhere.
Allison Anders, director of Grace of My Heart, Mi Vida Loca, Gas, Food Lodging, and Border Radio, wrote the 2008 DVD liner notes. So yay, Rhino! I certainly never thought The Fabulous Stains would ever see a DVD release.
Maybe I should have expected it, though. Everything that used to be fringe seems to become mainstream. Perhaps the internet killed fringe as a concept. It certainly killed rarity as a concept. When you can have everything or see and hear everything, nothing is rare. On a platform where all clicks are equal, the fringe disappears, and we all flop about on an endless flat plane covered with everything humans have created. Or everything we’ve created in the past century or so. Soon enough, that will be our history: an ever-shrinking memory of things we saw once on the internet.
Oh yeah, the film. Let’s get to it, shall we? This article is on the internet, so it’s part of our history now, and you’re living in it in real-time. Fancy!
I’m not going to say much about the plot of the film because, to me, that isn’t what’s great about The Fabulous Stains. It’s the entirety of the thing that I love. The fact that someone managed to get it made, and you and I can watch it here in the 21st century. That’s a miracle to me.
In a nutshell, here’s the story: a Rastafarian named Lawnboy is driving the Looters and the Metal Corpses around the bleak Northeastern U.S. in his old tour bus, managing a tour of tiny dives. He sees the disaffected rust belt punk Corinne “Third Degree” Burns on a television news show, where she’s being interviewed after the death of her mother. When Corinne learns the Looters are in town, she tracks down Lawnboy and talks up her barely-existent band. He sees opportunity in her notoriety and offers The Fabulous Stains (who have never played a gig) a spot on the tour.
So the Stains get on the bus.
I know, it’s improbable. But I have never seen another film that so successfully puts the bleak, no-budget rock and roll tour life onto the screen or one that so deftly captures the “out with the old, in with the new” moment in time when punk threatened to make everything that came before it obsolete. They made the film in Vancouver and Pennsylvania, and a cold, wet, overcast mood permeates practically every frame. If it sounds dismal, it should. Most of life on low-budget tours is dismal. The Fabulous Stains nails that reality perfectly.
The heart and soul of the film is the statement that Corinne wants the Stains to make. This is where the film gets into spooky precognition of the Riot Grrrl wave of the punk scene, with its strong feminist message. Lines like, “I think every citizen should be given a guitar on her sixteenth birthday,” and “[Men] have such big plans for the future, but those plans don’t include us.”
Or at the pivotal moment of the film, “I’m perfect! But no one in this shithole gets me because I don’t put out!”
I promise you, these are not the kind of things you heard from the actual female bands of the day. Remember, this movie was made in the post-Runaways, pre-MTV period, so you have to put yourself back into that time to realize how foreign and entirely out of left field some of this stuff sounded. That Lane delivered such a wholly believable and wickedly powerful performance without once crossing over into cringe or cheese territory—at the age of 15!—is some kind of magic that science can never measure. I don’t know anything about acting, but I know Diane Lane is a great fucking actor.
It throws some people off that Lane delivers the “I don’t put out” line while wearing what appears to be her underwear and a see-through lingerie top. But the wardrobe is a critical part of the message: you can look because I’m allowing you to look, but you can’t touch. The song they play earlier in the scene, Waste of Time, spells it out:
I’m a waste of time, don’t ask me
I’m a waste of time, don’t call me
I’m a waste of time, don’t touch me!
Dowd is flipping the bird to the misogynist notion that if women dress in a sexy way or allow men to see their bodies, they are inviting men to touch, grope, poke, prod, spank, or pinch them. Or worse. That’s been the undercurrent in every rape trial since rape trials began. “What was the victim wearing? Did the victim lead the man on?” As if clothes or appearance are an invitation to violate.
It’s worth noting that the Stains are doing everything they do in the face of resistance and sabotage by the men in their world (and outside of their world). The first time they hear the Stains play, Simonon’s character Johnny says, “They can’t play.” Billy answers, “Girls can’t be rock and rollers. It’s the facts of life.” While Lawnboy is generally supportive of the Stains and tries to teach them some things about life, he also exploits them by giving them tight black PVC catsuits to wear on stage.
The feminist message of The Fabulous Stains resonated with me as a young trans girl who also happened to be in punk bands. While I didn’t suffer the effects of misogyny or bear the weight of patriarchy (because, to the world, I appeared to be male), I felt them because, emotionally and mentally, I was not male. So when I saw a film where a girl loudly resisted and denounced patriarchy and misogyny, I felt it in my soul. I felt that struggle and I felt the unimaginable bravery involved in going up against what seems to be an immovable force in what may be a futile quest for your freedom and equality.
My life was a never-ending search for my freedom, a search that felt futile every day. The movie spoke to me so deeply and profoundly on that level that sometimes I think that I might be too enthusiastic about it or that I’m projecting something onto it that’s not there.
But objectively, I know it’s a great rock and roll film and feminist statement because I’m not the only one who believes that to be true. Many women of my generation who were in punk bands have expressed how important the film was to them, too, like Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, Courtney Love, and even younger musicians like Kate Nash, so I know its impact is real.
The feminist message of the film is hopeful. I say that because it doesn’t reflect reality at the time it was made. But the times were hopeful. The late 70s were the last time everything seemed possible. Real, lasting change seemed possible. Equality felt as if it was within reach, especially in creative fields like art and music. But in the four decades since, that hope has been battered and beaten, and here we sit with the same stale old white men still running everything. The hatred of women (and queer and trans people) has only intensified.
One of the things I love about the film is how Lane’s character evolves. While her initial message is feminist, she doesn’t become a feminist leader. Instead, at the first signs of success, she becomes an asshole. It’s yet another perfect touch in a wonderful story. Of course she becomes an asshole. She’s still angry. But when everything seems to crash around her, it looks as though she’s found humility and humanity (I say “looks as though” because, again, the end of the story Dowd wrote is missing).
Sometimes people manage to sneak films with a strong feminist message through the Hollywood machine. I think of Norma Rae, The Color Purple, Erin Brockovich, 9 to 5, A League of Their Own, Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, and most recently, Barbie. To me, Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains deserves to stand beside those big-budget Hollywood films. As imperfect as it may be in comparison, its message is righteous, and its artistry in depicting its world is flawless.
It’s heartbreaking that female musicians still have to battle misogyny every day. I’m not in the music business anymore, but I say “still” with some confidence because men are still men. One hundred years of feminism hasn’t changed men as a species. It’s only made them sneakier and more defensive.
That’s why the message of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, still resonates and why it’s still important.
Show the film to your daughter.
Then go buy her a guitar and some Bikini Kill records.