The Film - out of
Most people will have never heard of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. It received little notice and an even more limited theatrical run at the beginning of the 1980’s, but this is a remarkably prescient tale filled with gritty insight into the music scene and the inflated and self-serving role that the media and its subjects enjoy, often to the detriment of those involved.
The Fabulous Stains is about the rise and fall of a headstrong girl group who break into a music scene happy to dismiss and marginalize them. With a defiant lead performance by a 15 year old Diane Lane and a superb performance by Ray Winstone (Beowulf), the film is filled with piercing statements about the nature of the rock scene and propensity of the media to take its pound of flesh while watching musicians and their ego’s drain themselves of self respect for a shot at fame. But the film doesn’t pigeon hole the players to give itself an easy preaching session; no party is untainted and no side is entirely culpable. It simply shows the natural flow of strident souls searching for a way out and a way to get by, burdened by dire lives and meandering hopes that tease and taunt.
Directed by Lou Adler, a veteran of the music business and written by Nancy Dowd (using the pseudonym Rob Morton), The Fabulous Stains is a gritty, grey and observant story. Diane Lane plays a recently orphaned teen, Corinne Burns who along with her sister Tracey (Marin Kanter) and Cousin Jessica (Laura Dern), are part of a musically unfocused and novice start up band called ‘The Stains’. Adrift in their lives and borderline despondent, they have some notoriety from Corinne’s recent 15 minutes of fame being fired from her fry-chef job on TV and her raging against her boss for failing to recognize the worsening state of their town and its bleak future.
When a rock tour rolls into town, the three girl rocker wannabe’s watch on as a punk rocker band, ‘The Looters’ play intro to a washed up, passed its prime rock group, ‘The Metal Corpses’. Ray Winstone as Billy, lead singer of ‘The Looters’ is outstanding and is surrounded by genuine punk talent, with former Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook and Clash member Paul Simonon making up the rest of ‘The Looters’. The lead singer of ‘The Metal Corpses’, a mocked derivative of glam-rockers ‘Kiss’ is played by Fee Waybill of ‘The Tubes’. His role is that of an out of the frame rocker, who finds himself out of step with the music scene, obliviously holding on to past glory and sinking into a space of irrelevance. This is a charge pointedly made by Billy, who rejects the ‘old news’ headliner band as being out of touch and out of time.
Seizing an opportunity, Corinne manages to get ‘The Stains’ on board the tour, traveling with the at odds rockers and getting an unexpected break onto the scene. They defy even the most unimpressed audience that rejects their first performance. And rather than retreating in humiliation, Corinne rails against them as she did against the boss that fired her – igniting a fire of curiosity and hero worship from young girls who clasp what the stains seem to offer – and beginning the unprecedented ascent and descent that comes with being objects of media fascination. In one of the films most intriguing moments, as Corinne spews an angry rant against that unforgiving first audience, her rage is as much against the apathetic audience as it is against everything in her life that has failed her. She becomes galvanized in her resentment, peeling away layers of her own confusion, realizing more perceptively than ever before what weighs on her. But for every layer, every veil she sheds on that stage, she unwittingly sews the seeds for what will eventually bring her and her fellow ‘Stains’ members down. She is tumbling on stage when she appears to be scaling heights.
Her band learns as they play, much in the same way ‘The Clash’, ‘U2’, ‘The Sex Pistols’, ‘The Ramones’ and a slew of other seminal talents from the late 70’s and early 80’s did. Like them, they become apprentices to their own rising popularity on stage, growing into their musical talents and bearing the fruits that the promise of their passion and inspiration offers. Unlike those influential bands, ‘The Stains’ lose sight of what it should really be about and they pay a high price. They fall victim to a dispassionate and opportunistic media, a greedy music business and to their own personal naiveté that the pseudo wave of modern feminism they ignite turns their audience against them, and they are devoured by it.
Filmed in Canada, this cult favorite is filled with wonderful directorial imagination, excellent cinematography and great musical numbers. The perpetual rains of the characters lives are paralleled by the persistent cloudy skies and falling rains in the towns and cities where the tour takes them. Exceptional performances punctuate a remarkably timely story which reflects, albeit in rawer terms, much of what we see wrong with media’s obsession with vacuous and hollow fame, the self indulgency of fabricated talent and the shallowness of celebrity. It recognizes that drowning is inevitable when all you see is water and never the turning tide.
Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains is presented for the very first time on DVD, newly restored from the original vault masters, with its aspect ratio of 1.85:1 intact and 16X9 enhanced. For a film of such a low budget and neglect over the years, the image is a bit of a surprise. The color palette is drab but appropriate for the story, however the sharpness of the image does vary and there is quite a lot of noise in the image. It begins a little suspect, with quite a bit of dirt and debris showing up, but the grain is fitting for the film and never unreasonable for what we are watching. The dust specs are noticeable, during the first portion of the film in particular though. It does improve and the light/dark contrast used to great effect in the film is demonstrated nicely. Blacks are deeper and richer than I would have expected and even some of the colors, like the red of Corinne Burn’s make-up and outfit come across bright and clean.
The 5.1 Surround Sound audio track is, overall, pretty good. Despite the center channel experiencing some audio impediments (very rarely), as the sound drops a little, the surround sound is quite effective. It comes alive during the musical performances and even the excellent Reggae songs beat and sway with great support from the bass and rears during the shots of the tour bus traveling. The punk sounds and the girl group’s sound is delivered well and impress. During dialogue scenes, of which there are a number, the sound is admittedly a little lacking in depth, but for this film and its less than stellar preservation of the source materials, this is better than expected.
Audio Commentary by Diane Lane and Laura Dern - There is some reminiscing mixed in with an appreciation for their fellow cast members and crew. They are clearly having fun watching themselves so young, in awe at the time of their surroundings and the actors that they were privileged to work with. It’s a fun listen and there are good stories from the shoot shared.
Audio Commentary by Director Lou Adler - Adler’s commentary is subdued, and there are times when all we hear is the sound of him watching the film. He begins by merely injecting a few facts, but warms up a little as the commentary progresses, but doesn’t open up as much about the process of filming or the lasting impact of the film as would have been interesting. We are more watching the film with him than listening to him, but the occasional insights he shares are eventually worth the time. Those who are fans of the soundtrack will be pleased to know that there are plans to finally release it, according to Adler.
Photo Gallery - Approximately 70 stills from the film, shots from behind the scenes and even some publicity photos available here.
I don’t expect that everyone will ‘get’ this film. Its is a superlative accomplishment in the limit genre of films about music and the industry, serving as a portent of what we witness on a grand scale today and is even more remarkable for its realistic and surprisingly tough performances from Diane Lane and Ray Winstone. The extent of its influence is unknown but an influence it most certainly has had. It barely registered upon its initial, limit release and only found its audience when airing late night in the 1980’s on the USA Network program Night Flight. It was also seen on Showtime and made a one time appearance on VH1 in the late 1990’s (which helped further its Cult status). A very young Christine Lahti appears as Laura Dern’s mother in what appears to be a peripheral role, but her presence in the beginning of the film and where she finds herself toward the end, with how she views herself and her daughter, is a valuable element of the film.
This is the first title in Rhino's Rock 'N' Roll Cinema Series and I can easily recommend this film to anyone with a keen interest in underground, cult films whose lack of recognition is worrisome, to fans of films about the music industry or the ever diluted sense of responsibility the media has or, indeed, any fan of Diane Lane. This is a phenomenal performance from her and worthy of witnessing for yourself.