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Punk Rock Girls

Buy your tickets to the 2/25 Walter Reade Theater screening of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, featuring a teenage Diane Lane and members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the coolest film you've never seen.

Diane In the pantheon of teen films, it’s hard to imagine a time before John Hughes’ string of eighties classics, or even a time before Before Fast Times at Ridgemont High made fresh high school hijinks out of complicated lives. However, despite the long shadow cast by the era where Molly Ringwald was on the cover of TIME, there was a time before John Hughes and Cameron Crowe remade teenage life: the late seventies and early eighties were marked by a spate of darker, angrier, teen movies.

As I like to think of it, the suburban teen nihilism mini-genre lasted for just a handful of films in this time period: including movies like Over the Edge (1979), Quadrophenia (1979), Out of the Blue (1980),  and Times Square (1980), where two teen girls escape a mental institution to live a punk rock life in a very pre-Giuliani New York. The disparate collection of films each show the teen years as a kind of class struggle that was lost with the sunnier eighties teen canon.

The most legendary of this bunch may be 1981’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which is finally released on DVD this week thanks to Rhino. Starring a pubescent Diane Lane as angry teenager who starts a punk band, the film tested so horribly that it never got a proper theatrical release. Instead, its cult was spread via cable TV of the eighties, and when shows like USA’s Night Flight ended their runs, Fabulous Stains' cult moved onto bootleg VHS tapes and midnight showings at revival houses.

Passed around like a secret, Fabulous Stains has had a vibrant influence beyond its non-release. Several years ago, the late filmmaker Sarah Jacobson (Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore) directed a short documentary on the making of the movie for IFC. It became an oft-named inspiration to many women in music of the nineties, including Courtney Love. In particular, it left a mark on riot grrrl, a feminist punk movement. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, owed a debt to The Stains, not just aesthetically, but in spirit as well. With nostalgia for the nineties so rampant these days, Rhino is smart to use The Stains-riot grrrl relationship to their marketing advantage: Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail—whose band sang of “revolution girl-style now”—is even quoted on Rhino’s website saying that the movie is “the most realistic and profound film I have ever seen." She’s right.

Lane stars as Corinne Burns, a sneering, apathetic, small town teen with an absentee dad and a recently-dead mother. Unemployed and apathetic, she forms a band, The Stains, with her friends, including a 12-year-old Laura Dern. True to punk’s do-it-yourself ethos, they don’t even bother to learn to play instruments first. They manage to go on tour as an opening act for a couple of bands, which include a shockingly young Ray Winstone (fresh from Quadrophenia and nowadays best known as the heavy of Sexy Beast and The Departed) and some real-life rockers like Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. While The Stains have a less than tuneful debut, the girls quickly begin to exceed their generic boycentric tourmates in popularity.

stainsThe Stains literally wear their attitude as part of their performative style: they start bleaching and dyeing their hair in a skunk-style hairdo, they wear eye makeup that makes Amy Winehouse’s look subtle, and they wear red transparent chiffon blouses without bras underneath while screaming “We don’t put out” into their mics. The effect is like catnip to fellow disenfranchised teen girls, who start to dress like the band and crowd their concerts.

This being a punk rock parable, though, the band has a fall as swift as its rise. It’s no surprise, then, that the original title was All Washed Up. But writer Nancy Dowd (who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Coming Home and also wrote Slapshot) was so unhappy with neophyte director Lou Adler’s cut of the film—including a tacked on happy ending—that she asked for and received a (male) pseudonym. 

And whether The Stains’ ascension to MTV is a travesty or a comfort, over twenty years later, the film still feels immediate and urgent. Even the band's oft-imitated look (created by London journalist Caroline Coon) can be found today on the streets of Williamsburg. The movie is driven by Lane’s anger and drive to get out of her shitty mill town. Fabulous Stains reminds us that teen girls can apply themselves to something other than boys.

While the rise and fall of Corinne Burns and The Stains may be just as regrettable and dramatic and hasty as any high school relationship, it’s not one shown on screen very often—and probably why the movie has become such a part of the girl culture canon. In one of its iconic moments, Corinne pronounces that "every girl should be given a guitar at 16." Now that it's out on DVD, perhaps she should also get a gift-wrapped copy of this movie.

Marisa Meltzer is the coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book, Girl Power, will be released in the spring.

Click here for more information about the Film Society of Lincoln Center screening.

RSVP for the event on Facebook. The post-punk afterparty will have DJs, beer, and vodka.


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