Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Corinne Burns (Diane Lane), her sister Tracy (Jessica McNeil) and their cousin Jessica (Laura Dern) are disaffected teenagers with crappy lives in the hell that is small town America during a recession for any girl not willing to turn herself into what her society expects her to be. The trio do have a kinda-sorta band named “The Stains”, something only Corinne seems to take seriously – in a disaffected rural punk teen way, of course.

Luck and a pretty great teenage “I don’t give a shit” face land the Stains a support place on the tour of horrible old man hard rock band The Metal Corpses and British punks The Looters, despite the Stains not even having learned the three mandatory chords yet. Complicated developments turn the band – and particularly Corinne – into an over-night voice of female frustration and empowerment.

This partially feminist punk rock movie directed by music biz guy Lou Adler and written by Nancy Dowd had no impact at all when it was (barely) released, certainly also thanks to a row between director and writer about the ending that left the completed film on the shelf for two years. But then, that’s the sort of thing that’s bound to happen when a guy who thinks MTV stardom is the proper happy end for this film works with (against?) the script of a woman who clearly had rather more interesting ideas about success, counting importance in inspiration for others.

Anyway, the years – as well as an increasing interest in feminism in music – has grown the film its deserved cult audience. Adler is a surprisingly competent director for a guy whose only other directing credit is a Cheech and Chong vehicle. He’s certainly not showing many stylistic flourishes but hitting on a direct, semi-documentary tone that fits the material very well most of the time.

That style of direction is usually a good way not just to demonstrate authenticity (which is obviously a dubious concept but that doesn’t have to interest us here) but also to provide room for actors to do their thing. Fittingly, the film is at its best when it lets its very young actresses loose on a specifically female coded version of the classic escape from the American small town nightmare narrative. Art, here read in the proper punk spirit as a form of raw expression of a self that society wants desperately to repress, is treated as an obvious way both out of one’s repressive circumstances as well as one of understanding oneself and communicating this understanding. Whenever the film focuses on this aspect it feels raw and honest, and coming from what very much feels like actual experiences of the young actresses. Teenage Diane Lane is particularly fantastic in doing this. Watching her thoughtful performance, it’s a bit of a shame that not as many of her later films as should have made use of her acting ability as well as her beauty. Which, really, does fit nicely into this film’s general argument about/against the world.

All of this doesn’t always sit well with the more generic rock movie Adler apparently had in mind, so some of the more tropey plot beats known from all rock music movies ever made rub against that much more interesting film I just talked about for no good reason whatsoever. Of course, cleanness isn’t in The Fabulous Stains’ playbook much anyway – there’s a somewhat sprawling and unfocussed quality to the film, caused not only by the two different visions for it but also by the script’s commendable insistence on giving most side characters a backstory as well as some depth. So even the old rock star caricature Lou Corpse (played by Fee Waybill of The Tubes, one among many musicians playing musicians here) gets a moment of actual humanity, and characters most films would just let go about their plot necessities in the background have motivations and what is treated like a life beyond the movie. It’s certainly not something our contemporary love for streamlining in scripts would tolerate, and it does indeed make the film less dramatically focussed, but this treatment of side characters does demonstrate that the film’s idea of empowerment and expression is meant universally, wanting to open the world for women but not in the business of closing it to anyone else.

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