With an Oscar-winning screenwriter, a cast of rocker costars, and legendary music producer Lou Adler directing, fresh off Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains must have looked great on paper. Then, after a miserable test screening, Paramount buried the movie without even putting it in theaters. But ten years later, new life on late-night cable inspired a nation of girl rockers.
Fifteen-year-old Diane Lane plays Corinne "Third Degree" Burns, singer of a band that's only had three rehearsals, with little sister Tracy on guitar and their cousin Jessica, played by a thirteen-year-old Laura Dern, on bass. (Who needs a drummer?)
At a local show Corinne sees the Looters, a punk band from England hoping to break into America (with Ray Winstone as Billy the singer, backed by Paul Simonon from the Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols). The headliners are rock dinosaurs the Metal Corpses, past their prime and trying to grab some old glory. Corinne convinces the Rasta bus driver to take the Stains on tour.
The Stains can hardly play, but Corinne causes a sensation when she unveils her new look -- black hair with white stripes and Aladdin Sane-era Bowie makeup, with a see-through shirt and fishnets -- and yells at the heckling crowd, "Suckers! Be yourselves." A reporter with her own big-time ambitions casts the Stains as feminists, saying that their act isn't just snotty nihilism, but a rallying cry against patriarchy.
As the hype grows teen girls show up, dressed exactly like Corinne and calling themselves "skunks." When Billy accuses Corinne of being nothing but a look ("You're just hair, in't ya?"), she steals some meaning by lifting one of Billy's songs.
The Stains end up at the top of the bill, selling shirts and posters and little stuffed skunks to an army of shrieking look-alikes. When the Looters get booed, Billy stops the show to expose Corinne's supposed authenticity: it's all just a pose, he tells the audience, a scam to make a buck. They turn on the Stains, their sleazy manager drops them, and Corinne's a nobody again.
And then... In a bizarre tacked-on ending filmed two years later, the Stains show up in an MTV-style video. Their punky style has been traded for Bananarama cheese, Corinne's hair is huge and halfway down her back, and shots of them doing the Molly Ringwald dance alternate with "wacky" Monkees-style shenanigans -- it's utter madness.
Are we supposed to condemn the Stains for selling out, making it big with a stolen song? Or as the Girls Gone Mild video rolls out, intercut with snaps of the new Debbie Gibsonized Stains on the cover of magazines like Rolling Stone, are we supposed to admire them -- who cares how, they made it?
Because it's remembered as an iconic punk movie, the messages seem mixed to the point of confusion -- get ahead on the idea of integrity, then dump it for the next fad? It's OK to steal somebody else's song as long as it makes you famous? Be yourself, as long as "yourself" is a carbon copy of a pop star?
But whatever the intent of the original script, Adler wasn't making a punk rock movie, he was looking at the fickleness of the music industry, and how exploitation works both ways, all ways, from fan to band to media to record company and back again. Everyone's in it for themselves.
Never released in theaters or on video, when the movie showed up on late-night television, the idea of girls picking up instruments and going on the road seemed revolutionary to kids who'd never heard of the Slits or Exene Cervenka. The movie became an underground legend, with homemade copies passed hand to hand. (Now, thanks to Rhino, it lives on DVD.) Years later, the riot grrrls of the '90s would reference The Fabulous Stains as inspiration, with bands from Bikini Kill to Hole mentioning its influence.
Even though the Stains' approach of cheating, stealing, and selling out doesn't quite jibe with the punk ideal, it's easy to see why proto-grrrls were drawn to Corinne and the Stains: their rejection of groupie-dom, their defiance in the face of a male-dominated scene, and the motto they scream from the stage, a refusal to be taken advantage of: "Don't put out!"
The movie has problems, like the breakneck pace of the band's accomplishments (from can't play to punk heroes to washups to the Bangles in a month?). But Lane is fantastic as Corinne -- perfect in her indignation and rage, alluring and vulnerable and fearless all at once. The Tubes' Fee Waybill is great as the sad, bombastic front man of the Metal Corpses, and the script is filled with fantastic lines.
Like Corinne's last proclamation, which could be the slogan of the riot grrrls and all their descendants, from the Donnas to Kittie: "I think every citizen should be given a guitar on her sixteenth birthday."