Girls on Film: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

stainsBored with her working-class Pennsylvania town, 17 year old Corinne Burns teams up with her younger sister and cousin to form a band. Before they can even learn how to play their instruments, they are hired to be the opening act for an up-and-coming punk band called The Looters. Corinne’s unusual style and charisma quickly propel The Stains into superstardom—until their new fans turn on the band. Their swift rise and unceremonious fall form the plot of the 1981 cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

Starring a very young Diane Lane as Corinne, with members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols in minor roles, the film is a fascinating look at the music business in the early 1980s. There are the usual tropes about greedy, unfeeling managers, and the disposability of pop stars, but there are some unique angles explored here as well:

1. Although the world of male rock stars had been explored many times on film (going all the way back to 1957’s Jailhouse Rock), the female side had yet to be investigated. An all-girl band was still an anomaly in the early 80s, and therefore was the perfect movie subject. This film, seen on late-night television in the late 80s and early 90s, inspired many of the women who started the Riot Grrl movement.

stains22. There are some puzzling gender stereotypes at play in the film. The Stains’ rabid (all female) fan base loves Corinne one moment and hates her the next, supposedly illustrating the vapid interests of the typical music fan—or perhaps, we are led to believe, the typical FEMALE music fan. The girls latch on to the Stains because, in seeing Corinne on television, they identify with her anger and feel empowered by her boldness. Why, then, are they depicted as mere copycats of her look and attitude? Why must they be shown trying to duplicate every aspect of her look exactly, right down to the color of her blouse? Contrast this with fans of The Looters (largely male), who are depicted as individuals instead of a mob of copycats.

3. The character of Corinne is both the film’s biggest draw and its biggest disappointment. While the viewer learns at the beginning of the film that Corinne’s mother has recently passed away, thus explaining her anger and feelings of alienation, she remains an enigma throughout the film. Why does she want to be the leader of the Stains’ “movement”? Why does she relentlessly pursue stardom in the beginning, then reject it, then embrace it again in the end? The character is brash, larger-than-life, and completely different from any other female character seen in mainstream movies of the era, and it’s easy to see why she was so inspiring to members of Bikini Kill, Hole, etc., but the viewer never quite gets to know her.

stains34. The end of the film, in which The Stains have a hit record and get their music video on a channel that looks suspiciously like MTV, seemingly predicts the look and success of The Go-Go’s and The Bangles, still a year away when the film was completed. These bands, unlike the bands of the Riot Grrl movement, didn’t have a chance to be inspired by The Stains as they had already formed by the time of the film’s release.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a flawed but very entertaining film, and a real milestone in the depiction of women musicians on celluloid. The bands that it wrought would one day take its message of empowerment further, but in 1981 it was clearly in a class by itself.

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