Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Rocktober: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains' (1981)

Here we have sort of the flip side of Rock 'n' Roll High School: While that movie was all about the giddy abandon of punk rock, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is more about its dark side, about the way that unfocused rebellion can easily be co-opted into cheap marketing, and how the naive teenagers doing the rebelling can end up jaded and used. A famous failure in its initial release, Stains barely made it into a handful of theaters and was never released on video, instead building up a cult following via late-night cable airings and occasional midnight engagements in the '80s and '90s. It was released on DVD a couple of years ago, and it's one of those movies that was probably cooler when it was really hard to see.

Still, there's a lot to be said for the way that Stains anticipates the explosion of female rock/pop artists in the '80s, and its value as a rallying cry for women in rock is important. Diane Lane (all of 15 at the time) is excellent as sullen teenager Corinne Burns, who turns her undefined rage at the world into a fashion statement and a musical movement, only to have it all fall apart remarkably quickly. The movie's opening scene, which just focuses on Lane's face as Corinne lays out her nihilistic worldview to a TV reporter, is mesmerizing, but the rest of the movie is too much of a mess to live up to it.

The Stains, which include Corinne, her sister and her cousin (played by a young Laura Dern), have no musical talent and no clue about how showbusiness works, but they stumble into opening for a has-been glam rocker and then an angry punk band, whose genuine anti-establishment message they casually co-opt. The group goes from being booed off stage because they can't play to being adored by thousands of fans to being booed off stage because they've become sellouts in the course of what seems like about a week, and the movie's story feels very rushed and poorly planned. Yet there's excitement in watching the Stains evolve onstage, especially in Corinne's angry monologue about the expectations placed on teenage girls. Stains is a better historical curiosity than it is a movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't occasionally powerful.

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