Release Date(s)1982 (December 16, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray import.]
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a 1981 Canadian film that was marketed in two major American cities to disastrous results and withheld from release by Paramount for several years. It ultimately showed up on late-night cable TV where it became a cult favorite.
Corinne Burns (Diane Lane, Unfaithful) is the lead singer of a teenage all-female punk band. When her mother dies, she and her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter, Endangered Species) form a new band with their cousin Jessica (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park) and play gigs on the road as The Fabulous Stains. Corinne’s stage attire—a bright red see-through blouse, black bikini briefs, and fishnet stockings, along with two-tone hair and exaggerated eye make-up—is intentionally provocative. Yet an impromptu line at an early gig, “We’re the Stains and we don’t put out,” becomes the group’s catchphrase. Corinne explains that the phrase means, “Don’t be taken advantage of, don’t be a fool, be responsible for your own destiny.”
The Stains wind up as the opening act for the established but nearly washed up Metal Corpses. When one of its members overdoses, the Stains go on in their place and attract media attention because of Corinne’s bizarre outfits and the one-liners she spits out that become perfect sound bites for the nightly news. About the death of the Metal Corpses’ bassist, Corinne casually notes, “He was an old man in a young girl’s world.” Her quick, witty comments suggest that Corinne is intelligent and observant and able to present her thoughts in concise, clever terms.
The Stains’ shows sell out, fans replicate Corinne’s stage outfits, and the group becomes the next Big Thing. With fame, problems ensue and Corinne becomes more savvy about her own image, the music business, and the way that it marginalizes women. Corinne eventually meets Billy (Ray Winstone), a vocalist of the all-male punk band the Looters, and a romance develops as the Stains’ trajectory slows and eventually reverses itself.
Diane Lane, 15 years old at the time, inhabits the character of Corinne, a young tough woman whose life draws her to the punk milieu. The only adult family she has left is Aunt Linda (Christine Lahti), who has a lackadaisical attitude toward Corinne’s choices and fails to understand anything about her niece. Lane does a lot with expressions and reactions, which convey exactly what she’s thinking. Her Corinne is charismatic and holds our attention but it’s difficult to sympathize with her. Outwardly, she projects coolness, even coldness, but we never feel that there’s a warmer version of Corinne within.
Laura Dern, 13 at the time, has less to do dramatically and, like her character of Tracy, is clearly a secondary presence. Ray Winstone has some powerful scenes as a punk performer on the cusp of irrelevance, and his chemistry with Lane is effective. His high energy contrasts with Lane’s more subdued, reflective portrayal. Barry Ford, as Rastafarian road manager/bus driver Lawnboy, has a few good scenes. Peter Donat opens the film as an interviewer who asks Corinne about her rise to fame. She rolls her eyes at the unimaginative queries and offers halfhearted replies.
For authenticity, the cast includes some real-life punk artists, including Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, Fee Waybill of the Tubes, and Paul Simonson of the Clash. The Stains perform Waste of Time and Professionals, the Metal Corpses perform Roadmap of My Tears, and the Looters perform Don’t Blow It All Away and La La La.
Director Lou Adler (Up in Smoke) takes the viewer inside the machinations of the punk movement with its instant stardom, transitory success, cult following, and arrogant disdain of mainstream music. The early scenes depict the rigors of being on the road, living in cheap hotels, and working in dingy venues with sparse audiences. These scenes underscore the struggles of trying to make it in show biz.
The story of the Stains has a feminist slant. The three young women set out to establish themselves in an unfamiliar, male-dominated world. At one point, Corinne comments that everyone assumes female musicians on the road are merely groupies. Corinne is outspoken, self-confident, and fiercely determined to make it on her own terms, without reliance on or help from men. The Stains are breaking barriers. The finale leaves us wondering, “Is this what the Stains aspired to, or have they sold out?”
It seems odd that the media, as portrayed in the film, are just becoming aware of punk through the Stains since, by 1982, the movement had been around for several years. It’s also unlikely that mainstream news would devote so much attention to a single subculture band.
The characters in general are hardly warm and fuzzy types, and that’s the point of their punk culture, but it’s hard to get on board as they thumb their noses at the establishment and build their success on being rebellious and nonconformist. Corinne is charismatic, and it’s clear to see why she makes a dent in an otherwise cookie-cutter industry, but she and her crowd simply fail to fully engage.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains was shot by director of photography Bruce Surtees on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Imprint Blu-ray features an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Clarity and contrast are very good. Scenes in Corinne’s hometown are filmed under cloudy skies. In a couple of scenes, it’s raining, which adds to the portrait of a dead-end town, lacking any semblance of glamour. Complexions are rendered well, with Corinne’s unique eye make-up and two-tone hair standing out from the crowd. Club scenes feature bright stage lights and dark audience sections, though cutaways reveal enthusiastic crowds. For visual variety, musical numbers show close-ups of instruments and guitarists fingering their instruments. A brief black-and-white film clip of the Andrews Sisters in military uniforms appears in a performance by the Stains, who are wearing similar attire. Concert sequences use many camera angles to enhance excitement. The garish attire worn by Corinne, Tracy, and Jessica is intended to shock. Later, scores of the group’s fans attend a performance in cherry red see-through blouses. Backstage lighting is harsh and unflattering. A couple of newscasters are filmed at their desks, with the female newscaster perfectly coiffed and tastefully made up.
Two soundtrack choices are available, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Sound mixing is particularly effective during the musical sequences, which blend the music with crowd cheering and ambient background noise. The sounds of a bus rumbling from town to town and a heavy downpour add atmosphere. The musical numbers sound great, though it’s often difficult to make out some of the lyrics because of the rapid delivery.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Lou Adler
- Audio Commentary with Diane Lane and Laura Dern
- Audio Commentary with Lee Gambin and Allison Wolfe
- I Don’t Put Out: Punk Anger, X Feminism (16:26)
- Lizard Music: The Late Night Culture of the Fabulous Stains (16:31)
- Audio Interview with Marin Kanter (25:45)
- Keep On Rocking! (11:16)
- Photo Gallery (10 in all)
The commentary by director Lou Adler is the least interesting and the least informative of the three. His laid-back delivery suggests indifference and is heard only sporadically. Unlike the two other commentaries, which offer considerably more substance, Adler’s remarks are superficial. They provide little insight into shooting the film and offer hardly any memorable behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The second commentary is shared by actors Diane Lane and Laura Dern, young teens at the time, who enthusiastically reminisce about working on the film. They speak about filming in Vancouver and Pennsylvania and being surrounded by a cast of excellent actors. They talk about the later careers of many of them. The film influenced many young women, who formed their own bands. Christine Lahti’s portrayal of her character became a blueprint for Diane Lane of what not to become as a mother. Lane and Dern both feel “the movie starts when they get on the bus.” The Stains become famous not for their music but for their provocative appearance. Male cast members were very protective of Lane and Dern, warning them of the pitfalls of show business and especially of drugs. At the time of the film’s release, MTV had been on the air for only five months. Citing Madonna’s stage persona and her devoted following, they note that “the movie is coming true.”
Film critic Lee Gambin and musician/journalist Allison Wolfe share the best of the three commentaries. They begin by claiming that the film is “one of the most sought-after cult films of all time.” Buried in the Paramount vaults, the film eventually became a late-night staple on cable TV in the United States. The commentators discuss the role of the media in fostering interest in the arts, particularly music forms, even though they don’t understand the artistic, cultural, and political significance. The film addresses many topics—the punk movement, women in music, feminism, urban angst, subcultures, and teen-centered cinema. They discuss a number of other films dealing with the music scene of the late 70s and early 80s, among them Smithereens, Times Square, Rude Boy, and Rock and Roll High School. The phrase “The dying dinosaur rock of the 70s” is used to refer to a band in the film still touring on the strength of their one hit song years earlier. Corinne’s hair style and costumes are intentionally confrontational—visual signifiers of what the band stands for. Considerable attention is devoted to the song Waste of Time, which has a simple message, “brilliant” lyrics, and embodies the dismissal of teen girls’ real-life experiences. Corinne tries to figure out how to be the protagonist of her own story. The Fabulous Stains is compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which became a huge social and cultural phenomenon with its midnight shows and audience participation. In The Fabulous Stains, the feminist outcry is heard loudly and clearly.
I Don’t Put Out – Women were encouraged to fight back and not be content to be second-class citizens. They could become rock stars. Though punk rock celebrated both men and women, women wanted to be seen not only as sex symbols, but for their musical contributions. Several female musicians from the punk movement are discussed, many of whom became role models. Punk offered a voice to young, working-class women who were not expected to conform to gender stereotypes. Punk was about to give way to MTV style artists. Feminism was tied to punk. It was a message that was heard on a much broader basis. Hollywood created many exploitation films featuring strong female characters.
Lizard Music – During the 70s and 80s, many TV stations signed off for the night. The Fabulous Stains was frequently shown on late night cable TV. It was “something too exciting to ignore and too provocative to forget.” Girls in teenage bands were “messy, proud, and ambitious” with faith in themselves, “who dared to not fit in.” Several British rock groups are mentioned. The Fabulous Stains is more than a story about feminist punk rock. The success of the film was achieved before the introduction of social media; TV was the pathway for the film to reach a wide audience.
Audio Interview with Marin Kanter – Marin Kanter speaks about the audition process. She didn’t know much about the film. She read “cold” and sang, eventually received a copy of the script and liked it, and was called back several times. She was pretty straitlaced and wasn’t into the punk movement, but she identified with the character of Tracy, a “smartass.” Kanter had to take lessons on the electric guitar, noting that “we kind of fudged it” regarding the guitar playing. Kanter had to have her long brown hair cut. She responded to the film’s message of women finding their voice through music. The relationship among the three female leads was congenial. Filming took place in Vancouver. The film has a documentary feel as it tells the tale of a blue-collar town with not much of a future.
Keep On Rocking! - Debbie Rochon notes that casting was done in 1979. She was signed as an extra. Only the girls filmed close to the camera had their hair dyed blonde because it was such a costly procedure. “It was a life-saving movie for me.” She says that the film had a male vibe, though it was written by a woman. The film went underground, which actually helped its reputation. It came on cable TV in 1984 and even played the Film Forum in New York City. The critics didn’t like it, but the film found its audience, becoming a “female righteous” movie. The film was never officially released theatrically.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a fascinating period piece that takes aim at music industry corruption while championing feminism and perseverance as a determined trio push boundaries and defy the odds in an emerging musical form. There’s also a significant statement about what women wear not being an invitation for sex. The story about rebellion and sexual freedom leading to conformity is ironic and reflects the power of performers to influence their fans.
- Dennis Seuling