Question: What do Diane Lane, Laura Dern, the Sex Pistols and the director of Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke" have in common?
Answer: Possibly the most influential rock and roll movie you've never seen.
The 1981 cult film "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains," a gritty, cynical look at the rise and fall of an all-girl punk band, was never officially released in theaters and appeared only a few times on late-night cable. But stubbornly, almost magically, the movie built a devoted following, eventually becoming a touchstone for such female rockers as Courtney Love, Brett Anderson of the Donnas, and Kathleen Hanna, whose band Bikini Kill helped launch the feminist punk genre known as riot grrrl. For nearly 30 years, fans have been trading grainy bootleg copies - some of which sold on eBay for upwards of $100 - but earlier this month, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains" received its first DVD release through Rhino Entertainment.
"I've been waiting for, like, 15 years for them to release this," says Hanna, who recalls watching a pirated copy after her second-ever practice with Bikini Kill in the early 1990s. "We had no songs, we totally did not know what we were doing," she says. "And then we watched that and thought: We can do anything."
"Stains" is no feel-good teen flick. It focuses on Corinne Burns (Lane, then 16), a working-class girl stuck in a dead-end Pennsylvania town. After seeing an English punk band called the Looters, Corinne forms her own group, the Stains, with her sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Dern, just 13). Dressed in a see-through negligee and shouting a feminist manifesto - "I don't put out!" - Corinne quickly becomes a media sensation, inspiring legions of identically dressed followers nicknamed "skunks" for their two-tone hairstyle. Eventually Corinne's fans turn hostile and abandon her, but the film's ending is ambiguous: A slick music video, from the suddenly "Fabulous" Stains, suggests either a triumphant comeback or a surrender to conformity.
At the time, "Stains" seemed to have hit potential. The script came from Nancy Dowd (writing under the pseudonym Rob Morton), who had recently won an Oscar for the Jane Fonda drama "Coming Home." Lane had already graced a 1979 cover of Time magazine, declaring her one of "Hollywood's Whiz Kids." And Dern was a rising talent who had appeared in the teen movie "Foxes" with Jodie Foster.
"To me, it was this profound experience during adolescence," Dern says. To research her role, she attended concerts by the Plasmatics and Lene Lovich. And when filming was done, she returned to her private junior high school with two-tone hair. "It was a pretty radical shift," she says. "I came back listening to that music."
Director Lou Adler, a music-industry veteran who had worked with Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas before turning to movies - he produced "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and directed "Up in Smoke" - wanted real rock musicians for the film. The Looters almost qualified as a real group: The singer was Ray Winstone, fresh from The Who's "Quadrophenia" (and later of "Sexy Beast"), backed by bassist Paul Simonon of The Clash and guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. (Those two also wrote the film's would-be hit, "Professionals.") And singer Fee Waybill and keyboardist Vince Welnick, of the Tubes, winkingly played a pair of aging, decadent rock stars.
"I had to draw on the world I knew," says Adler, 74. "I go so far back in the music business, there's pretty much nothing that I didn't see, hear or feel."
All of which helped make the movie an authentic, if somewhat simplified, punk fable. The Looters' dreary U.S. tour mirrors the Sex Pistols' ill-fated American tour in 1978. The Stains hit it big on "MVNTV," a clear nod to MTV, which had just launched in the summer of 1981. And the trajectory of the Stains themselves - from edgy punks to safe pop act - is the story of every co-opted counterculture.
"I thought it was very telling, very true to life," Waybill says of the film's jaundiced view of rock and roll. "The music business couldn't be more cutthroat. And today, even more so than before."
For Hanna, the film was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. To this day, she signs autographs with the words "The Fabulous Stains," hoping fans will seek out the movie. "There aren't too many representations of women in bands that aren't just totally horrible," she says. "For a young girl starting a band, it was like water in the desert."
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains - Part Two