“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” (1982)
by A.J. Hakari
Funny how your feelings on a film shift whenever you watch it. The day you’re having, the company you’re with, and the venue all effect one’s perception, creating a virtually new viewing experience each time. Now I had never seen Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains until now, but I can tell that my younger self would’ve been a sucker for its rebellious nature, drawn to its troubled protagonist in the same way I was by The 400 Blows and its hero. But just as a repeat viewing casted Jean-Pierre Leaud’s troublemaker as a brat who needed to get his act straight, the embittered bastard I am has to recognize Fabulous Stains as a sloppy drama that neither criticizes or sympathizes with its lead character in any meaningful way.
Corinne Burns (Diane Lane) is angry. Angry at her mother’s death, angry that she’s losing her home, and angry that everyone else in her dying town is content with mediocrity. Corinne wants more from life, and after seeing punk musician Billy (Ray Winstone) perform, she knows just how to get it: by forming her own rock group. Granted, neither Corinne nor her bandmates (Marin Kanter and Laura Dern) can play that well, but that doesn’t stop them from going on tour with Billy and earning fans who hang on their every tirade against an unfair society. But will the band’s message survive their rise in show business, or will Corinne become the very puppet she started out hating?
Yep, Fabulous Stains is one of those movies. The “Behind the Music” story, the template that dictates that characters rack up notoriety as quickly as it renders them insufferable douchemongers. It’s not going away anytime soon, so it’s to this film’s credit that it at least chose an interesting target. Director Lou Adler shows us that the world of punk is as susceptible to fame’s many temptations as that of pop music. There’s delicious irony in seeing identically-dressed concertgoers listening to Corinne’s gospel of being unique (think Life of Brian — “WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!”). But Fabulous Stains stops short after nailing these admittedly easy target, addressing the big picture well enough but ignoring almost all the character intimacy that would have made it a more raw, painful, and complete picture.
Corinne has attitude, which the movie makes abundantly clear. She has the desire to better herself but is impressionable enough to easily stray, a blend of rage and naivete that, developed the right way, would make for a crackling character cocktail. But Fabulous Stains never draws upon this, putting Corinne through the usual turn of events in stories like this (being seduced by success, betraying her friends, etc.) with the same pouty-puss face. With no clear motivation behind so many of her actions, she comes off as a terrible person from beginning to end, a whiner whom we not only never understand but don’t really have a desire to in the first place. It’s a shame, because Lane can rock a thousand-yard stare, and the succession of industrial wastelands the Stains visit are as bleak as they croon about. Too bad Corinne feels like the kind of person who’d screw over her loved ones even without merchandising residuals to influence her.
I like to think I haven’t reached the “get off my lawn” stage of life when I’m just in my 20s, but Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains didn’t do anything for my inner whippersnapper. It’s one thing to understand where a directionless youth’s disillusionment is coming from, and it’s another to watch a jerk use “Because I’m YOUNG!” as an excuse for being a jerk. Bitchin’ tunes and decent acting aside, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a bust as both punk satire and character piece.