Sonic Outlaws

The second annual edition of “Sound Unseen” highlights the subversive side of music making in the era of media consolidation.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (which screens at 7:15 p.m., Saturday, September 29 at Oak Street Cinema) is not an original take on the cunts in punk--though like certain platters of the Pistols, it enjoyed the dubious honor of being financed and then spiked by an entertainment conglomerate. In 1981, when the film was made, it had been about half a decade since Johnny Rotten and Co. first brought anarchy to the U.K. Punk was turning into new wave in the States. Former punker Blondie was holding a spot in the Top 40 charts, the Go-Go's would soon replace the Slits, and you could finally buy your ultra-red hair dye in any hipster shop instead of resorting to cherry Kool-Aid. (Wait a few years and you could use it to style your hair like Cyndi Lauper.) In other words, punk was already becoming a cliché.

And before anyone even started filming, so was The Fabulous Stains, albeit a deliciously kitschy one. Both the film and the real-life story of its production, chronicled in Sarah Jacobson and Sam Green's "Stains: Behind the Movie" (which screens before the feature), illustrate the misguided distinction between trend-setting and style-following. Perhaps the point of confusion between the two is what caused director Lou Adler to get belatedly hip to the girl-punk scene in the first place.

In the hypervisual MTV dawn when The Fabulous Stains was created, style taking precedence over substance was not a rare phenomenon (Bananarama, anyone?). Suddenly, rock stars could play badly, as long as they looked good. Appropriate to such an era, The Fabulous Stains sees Burns (Diane Lane), her sister (Marin Kanter), and cousin (Laura Dern) learn that being a punk star is all about visual gimmicks: translucent blouses with no bras, white stripes in black hair, pink lightning makeup over the eyes. When a newscaster praises the Stains for their bold new look, they spawn a wave of dress-alike followers, or self-proclaimed "Skunks," who scream the Stains' personal mantra at their shows: "I'm perfect but no one here gets me, 'cause I don't put out!" Yet the fashion was created by punk photographer Caroline Coon, who had seen it played out years earlier while photographing covers for punk albums of the Seventies. Polished up and displayed on the big screen, even the tired-out styles of street punks from previous years could be sold dubiously to the public as original Hollywood vogue.

The fact that Adler (Up in Smoke) was an old man in a young girl's world is painfully obvious in the film--and, as Green and Jacobson's doc suggests, it was obvious on the set as well. In Nancy Dowd's screenplay, the writer (who had earlier won an Oscar for Coming Home) took care to expose the double bind of women in the music industry. For Corinne to attain the glory, skill, and sex that her male cohorts have, she's expected to accede to--and even embrace--the demeaning way they treat the women that throng to the front of the stage and the tour bus. But after a cameraman thought it would be funny to simulate the focusing of a camera lens by groping Dowd's breasts, she quit, taking her name off the film and allowing the director more creative license. (Dowd's name was replaced in the credits by a male pseudonym, Rob Morton.)

Initially, Adler used this freedom to illustrate what happens when one group falsely adopts another's culture. The climax of the film comes when the lead singer (Ray Winstone) of the punk boy band the Looters (played by Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols, and Paul Simonon from the Clash) chastises the Stains' fans for copying the rockers' style and being more interested in merchandise than in thinking autonomously. The movie's message: No matter which part we play in the entertainment industry--musician, manager, or fan--we're all nothing but selfish cunts whose sole aspiration is to be cooler than our friends.

Of course that same desire is also true for filmmakers and moviegoers. Test markets suggested that The Fabulous Stains was a rerun of an old style--not a promising indicator for the teen audience. (Paramount claims this is the reason it was never released.) As a last-ditch effort to save the film, Adler tacked on a happy ending. Forget about the film's commentary about music's quest for authenticity! he seems to say. Let's end it by dressing the Fabulous Stains like the Bangles and watching them perform on MTV! It's a cinematic enactment of the real-life segue from the punk anti-mastery of the Seventies into the professional glamour imagery of the Eighties.

Since then, The Fabulous Stains has been relegated to the B-movie sanctuary of USA's "Night Flight," sharing the station with other guilty-pleasure band films like Justine Bateman's Satisfaction. Despite its trend-suspicious nature, it has become a hip film to namedrop. Courtney Love, Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, and even Jon Bon Jovi have sung its praises in interviews. Young girls, wanting to imitate their favorite stars, watched it on late-night TV. And over the years, it's become a cult classic. How ironic that our yearning to imitate rock stars has been reflected not just by the Skunk groupies onscreen, but by the fact that we'll go to see a film about this imitative impulse because the lead singer of Hole told us it's good. And, how ironic that such manipulation can be good entertainment! So who's the skunk now?

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