Monday, September 27, 2010

Every girl should be given an electric guitar on her 16th birthday.

The riot girl phenomenon flourished in the 50s and ‘60s with Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Ed Wood and a handful of forgotten auteurs creating plenty of femme-gangs, savage rich girls, quasi-lesbian teen killers, and other such renegades to torment suburban parents and delight misfit teenagers throughout the country. But unlike most riot girl movies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains was made for a major studio, Paramount. After the studio execs walked away from the movie perplexed by the film’s unusual and embittered tone, they refused to release it. Stains was relegated as a footnote in film history and Lou Adler’s less-than-prolific directing career (his only previous credit was Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke) ended.

Until its recent DVD release, this 29 year-old long lost cult classic was one of the greatest rock ‘n roll movies you never saw and you were never going see. Few have had the opportunity to experience this gem and it probably would have stayed on the shelf had it not been for the TV series “Night Flight” on cable’s USA Network. “Night Flight” periodically broadcast the movie during its four-hour, late-night programming, permanently etching the minds of its drunk, up-all-night and slightly twisted viewers with the story of Corinne and The Stains and gaining a cult following that had been clamoring for it for a long time. With its unique style and story of three angry, oddball girls who find their voice in punk rock, Stains went on to inspire many female garage bands in the ‘80s including riot grrrls such as Courtney Love and members of L7 and Bikini Kill.

First and foremost, Stains is a welcome break from all the air-headed John Hughes teen epics of the time. Set in dead-end shithole Jonestown, Pennsylvania, a town famous for being wiped out by an 1889 flood, it stars the unforgettable, 15-year-old-jailbait Diane Lane as Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, a sexy, anxious, recently orphaned teen who’s ready to take out her angst on an unsuspecting world. She ends up on television after she raises hell and quits her job as a fry cook, declaring: “This town’s been dead for a long time!” She catches the attention of thousands of alienated young rural girls who send letters to the local TV station exclaiming, “She said what I think about all day long.”

As an outlet for her alienation, Corinne forms a band, The Fabulous Stains, with her sister and cousin Jessica (lanky 12 year old Laura Dern, who successfully sued for legal emancipation from her mom so she could go off to Canada to shoot the film). No one seems to notice that the girls can’t actually play or sing. Yet, The Stains, capitalizing on Corinne’s cult status, land a spot on a cross-country tour with two other bands: the appropriately named The Metal Corpses, wretched old rockers from the ‘70s who continue to perform long after their spandex has lost its snap and The Looters, an English punk band hoping to make it big in America. Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Departed), thin and pretty much unrecognizable until he beats up somebody, plays Looter frontman Billy. Stains real punk rock cred comes from the casting of his band mates, Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon from the Clash. In addition, the film includes songs written by Cook and Jones. Their home is a tour bus painted with Jamaican designs and it's driven by their promoter/manager Lawn Boy (Barry Ford), a Rastafarian "philosopher.

In a world where attitude is everything, The Stains’ lack of talent and skills is no obstacle to success; they surpass the men and become overnight stars in spite of sounding like the early Shaggs. Like the Monkees and '90s boy bands, Corinne and her group are calculated fabrications, however, in this case they’re their own creations. Image trumps talent and The Stains become an overnight success. A newscaster sees the girls on the news—following the overdose and death of Corpses' lead guitarist—and promotes the girls on her broadcast. The guys, once so superior to The Stains, find themselves outdone by the females, and, just as The Looters regarded Corpses as useless old wankers, The Stains consider The Looters (who are in their early 20s) to be aging pussies. The Looters fail to see the irony in this indictment and further role reversal occurs as the once-headlining Corpses fade away and The Stains steal the spotlight from The Looters. This ambitious ascent takes place at Billy’s expense, whose punk style and playlist Corinne shamelessly steals. Fame is capricious and eventually things fall apart.

As a young actor, Diane Lane is a total badass and Stains actually excuses her from being in Must Love Dogs and Nights in Rodanthe. During the Stains’ first performance, clever Corinne walks onto the stage in a red beret and oversized gray coat, and after the girls are booed because they can’t play, she removes her hat and coat to reveal black and white spiked hair, red flame eye makeup, a see through lace blouse, no bra and black underwear, introducing an unforgettable look and captivating the audience and the film's cult following. Lane simultaneously launched the lingerie-as clothing-fashion trend, and the skunk hair that was predominant in ‘80s subculture. Her eyes look a hundred years old, and in this performance she knows no boundaries. Corinne follows up the image by verbally pummeling her audience and with two-note songs such as "I’m a Waste of Time." She invigorates an army of teenage girls, who become her clones adopting the hair, panties and dishonest mantra “We don’t put out!” Lane’s wonderfully pouty, bitchy performance makes her one of the most memorable cinematic riot girls.

Stains is loaded with good pop and punk music — not surprising given Adler’s stature as a music producer, having founded various record labels, managed a string of bands (The Mammas and the Papas among them), and produced the monumental Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The Corpses' lead singer and guitarist are played by The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick, who also played organ for The Grateful Dead. They provide creepily authentic depictions of pathetic aging rockers. Two lines by Waybill compete for most memorable in Stains. The first, as Waybill reminisces about his steamy night with the group’s one, aging fan, he remarks that she was “like nectar except her kid was screaming all night,” and the second, as he applies eyeliner in his dressing room he discloses that he has so much pent up emotion that sometimes he just has to hit his old lady. He follows it with: “Some women are into that, you know.”

Stains is a unique mix of high/low ideas and visual presentation. As a result, sometimes Adler’s shots are weirdly raw and unpolished and other times surprisingly sophisticated. His on-again, off-again competency perfectly complements the characters’ hunt for rock 'n roll stardom. Adler used few professional actors, which works as an advantage, and the soundtrack is authentic -all songs were performed by the cast members, including the reggae by Ford. And yes, that's Lane doing her own vocals. It took some serious shameless punk aggression for Winstone to get on stage and perform with some of the most intimidating punk legends in the world; he holds his own as Jones/Cook/Simonon rage around him. Lane and Dern's vulnerable, barely pubescent performances are no act and what should be clashing elements in the film – the girls’ inexperience, the genuine rock 'n roll components and Adler’s melodramatic style -- strangely enhance one another.

Adler takes ruthless potshots at many targets, including the opportunistic and brainless media and the music industry. In his view, everyone’s a phony, from the scheming manager to the self-absorbed rockers to the fickle audiences to Corinne herself. Stains could have easily been about young kids searching for stardom and their exploitation, but this film is smarter than that. Yes, Corinne is used by the media for gain and by the tour manager for profit, but she takes what she can from everyone too. Her army of fans predates the Madonna wannabes that popped just a couple years later and one can easily see how someone like Courtney Love would come across Stains and say, "Fuck yea, that's me!" The film was right; pissed-off girls were searching for a new kind of role model that wasn't sweet and who tells everyone to fuck off.

Stains endured obscurity because it was an unsentimental view of the minor-league rock ‘n roll world and the revolutionary idea that three inexperienced, untrained young girls could resolve to form a rock ‘n roll band and do well enough to draw a considerable cult following and become a success. While the first generation of punk rock scared the crap out of the British 30 years ago, in the U.S. people mostly just mocked it and hoped it would disappear. It didn't; it just took a while to catch on. The same can be said for this 1981 film that tries to recapture that era, and does so with a visionary amount of cynicism, attitude, would-be stars and some very '80s fashions. It's mind-boggling that the film was not well received since its style, music and overall concept are still wildly popular, proving its content to be more than just a fad. One has to conclude that 1981 just wasn't ready for Stains.

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