Sixteen year-old Diane Lane as Corrine “Third Degree” Burns
Sometimes there’s nothing quite so true as a good fiction. This saying came back to me while working on my forthcoming book on rock documentaries. Concert videos, festival films and artist biographies may preserve milestone moments and excavate the personal backstories beloved by fans. But sometimes a novelistic approach and fictional characters can allow a filmmaker to better plumb the aspirations and struggles of musicians without that overlay of hero worship that can mark a non-fiction treatment. (Some fictional bands find that cinematic notoriety may lead to success in “real” life, most notably with Spinal Tap but more fleetingly with acts like the Commitments). I recently came across a DVD of the long-obscure 1982 film “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains” in the music documentary section of a library. So that’s one more “lost” rock film I can cross off my list. Be patient, “Slade in Flame”—you’re next!
Mislabeled it may have been, but “The Fabulous Stains” does hit on some timeless truths concerning the low end of the music industry food chain and youthful discontent in a troubled economic area. The director, music mogul Lou Adler, was known to dabble in film, having produced the perennial midnight movie favorite “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Maybe he thought cult-classic lightning was going to strike twice. The story arc of the film even suggests as much: a trio of teenage girls, helped along by an ambitious female news anchor, become an overnite sensation, their confrontational brand of girl power immediately attracting hordes of copycat fans. Instead, “The Fabulous Stains” received only a brief theatrical release, afterwards being seen occasionally on basic cable or the odd VHS copy before its partial re-discovery as a seminal inspiration for the riot grrrl movement.
There’s a fair amount to like about this work, most notably an extremely young Diane Lane and her incisive performance as Corrine Burns, recently orphaned after the death of her mother. During a local news report on her and her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter), Corrine gets fired from her crap job while cameras are rolling. She and Tracy, along with their similarly disaffected cousin Jessica (a 15 year-old Laura Dern) find an escape route out of their dead-end town via the ramshackle tour bus of faded hard-rock act The Metal Corpses. The conceited frontman of this has-been group is played by the Tubes’ Fee Waybill—a bit too convincingly for his own good, it could be added. He doesn’t care much for the Looters, the upstart English punk band that’s been opening his shows (the feeling is more than mutual) and the Stains are invited on the bus as a hedge. But when disaster befalls the Corpses, the two bands left standing become tourmates and eventual rivals.
It should be noted that the Stains barely qualify as a band. They don’t have a drummer, have only rehearsed three times (“but they were long rehearsals,” one of them notes) and couldn’t be counted on to come up with a set list. What they do have is plenty of nerve and behind the steely resolve of Corrine (and Lane’s searing performance, which totally sells it) become an emblem of youthful self-determination in tough times. Her confrontational performance rant, while clad in skimpy underclothing and sporting a skunk hairdo and Ziggy Stardust make-up, is consciously promoted by the woman newscaster, making the Stains an instant phenomenon across the proverbial “tri-state area” (apparently West Virginia, Pennsylvania and another one TBD). But the real wild card here is the Looters, who come across like a great lost supergroup of the early 80s. I mean, blimey, they got half of the Sex Pistols (guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook), the Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass and ace character actor Ray Winstone as the dynamic lead singer. In the clip below, Diane Lane’s Corrine sees her own aspirations reflected back to her in the Looters torrid performance of their signature “Join the Professionals.”
Rock film aficionados will recall Ray Winstone as Kevin in 1979’s “Quadrophenia”
In less than a week after this hometown scene the Stains have amassed legions of followers and Corrine becomes an imperious star ready to brush aside her love interest Winstone and steal his best song. But no matter, is there anybody out there who would want a movie like this to last longer than 90 minutes? Under Adler’s direction and Nancy Dowd’s generally sharp screenplay, “The Fabulous Stains” gets a lot of things right: the dullish deadweight of passed-over towns, the resentments and empty hours of musicians touring by bus, the need for outsiders to make their mark in the world. But in the minds of many potential admirers, the skunk hair and face paint probably identified the Stains with such terminally uncool MTV one-offs as Kajagoogoo. Yet fate is kind to many films seen retroactively as ahead of their time and if you live in the New York City area you have a chance to do what few others have—see “Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains” in a theatrical screening. The BAM Rose Cinema at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is having a “Punk Rock Girls” film series until June 1st and it will be playing on May 31st. Full schedule here: http://www.bam.org/film/2014/punk-rock-girls
In Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita’s endearing 2005 film “Linda Linda Linda”, an all-girl band, scheduled to perform at their high school cultural festival in three days, have to start from scratch when two members drop out. Happenstance replaces ambition as they get the idea to perform three songs by Tokyo punk band Blue Hearts (including the 1987 hit “Linda Linda”) after hearing them on a mislabeled cassette and then recruit Son (Doona Bae), a half-comprehending Korean exchange student, after deciding that the next girl they see passing by will be asked to join as vocalist.
“Do you want to do a band?” The wonderful Doona Bae as Son, who suddenly finds herself a rock singer, along with (left to right) bassist Nozomi (Shiori Sekine), drummer Kyoto (Aki Maeda) and guitarist Kei (Yu Kashii)
This diffuse, amusingly minimalist movie is as much a nostalgic dream of the end of high school as it is a salute to the sisterhood of the electric guitar. “When we grow up, we won’t stop being kids,” promises the presenter of a school camcorder crew who pop up here and there to give context that the band is too busy practicing to provide, while both Son and Kyoko are also dealing with would-be boyfriends whose formal and awkward kokuhaku (confessions of love) are delivered at inopportune moments. Trying to squeeze in one last rehearsal at the pro studio of Kei’s older ex-flame, the girls finally succumb to exhaustion. Almost sleeping through their time slot, there’s a rain-soaked dash back to the school where the drenched but still adorable quartet have their victorious moment, made all the more effective by the underplayed reactions of the film’s other characters.
I couldn’t find a video clip with the subtitles, but the slow part at the start goes “Like a rat, I want to be beautiful/Because there’s a beauty that can’t be photographed” which probably sums up high school for a lot of folks.
Now that Doona Bae has crossed over into stardom on these shores (she was recently seen in “Cloud Atlas”) maybe there will be more recognition for this overlooked gem.
Far from the one-time triumph won on a high school gymnasium stage, these last two fictional bands have long histories to contend with as they embark on the inevitably fraught undertaking called the reunion tour. In “Hard Core Logo,” Bruce MacDonald’s gritty faux-documentary from 1996, a band of the same name agree to a five-city trip of western Canadian cities after getting back together for a benefit show for a fellow musician and mentor, seriously injured (or so it would seem) in a shooting. The thrash-happy HCL are led by mohawked Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon, leader of the real-life Vancouver group the Headstones) the volatile but charismatic type well known in punk rock circles. His rough-hewn integrity has often been at odds with his handsome lead guitarist Billy Tallent, who has returned north from L.A. where he is being considered for a spot in a mainstream act with a popular chick singer.
Hard Core Logo (l to r) Callum Keith Rennie (as Billy Tallent), Bernie Coulson (as Pipefitter), Hugh Dillon (as Joe Dick) and John Pyper-Ferguson (as John Oxenberger).
Off they go in their converted box van through the Canadian Rockies, hashing over the past and wondering if there’s one last shot at glory for a band with tunes like “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are” and “Rock and Roll is Fat and Ugly” and whose stage show features the front line happily spitting on each other. Ontario native McDonald (who had previously made “Roadkill” and “Highway 61”) brings a knowing north-of-the-border sensibility to the proceedings and is himself a character from behind the lens, often heard kibitzing with the band members. An honest appreciation of the Western provinces also gives the film an appealing regionalism, like when a band member comments on the receptive Calgary rock fans as compared to the snooty L.A. crowd or a “chain-smoking Quebec separatist” audience.
Although the film’s pointed realism makes you figure early on that things won’t end well, McDonald spices up the proceedings with stylistic touches like variable-speed editing and sound mix trickery (there’s even an LSD party scene) that keeps things skipping along. For a film that has been voted one of the best ever produced in Canada, “Hard Core Logo” spent a long time unavailable on home video, but is currently available online to see in full. Catch it while you can.
Finally, there’s “Still Crazy” from 1998, another very likable but less-noticed entry of this genre. Strange Fruit were a 70’s band from England whose in-fighting and substance abuse stymied their chances for superstardom. What are the chances?! By way of explanation, the film opens with the straw that broke the group’s back (festival gig meets ill-timed electrical storm) before fast-forwarding twenty years to the mid-Nineties where a chance meeting sets in motion plans for a reunion tour. A memorable meditation on rock’s mid-life crisis, and a cock-eyed tale of redemption, follows along with it.
Twenty years after that fateful festival, Tony Costello, the band’s keyboardist and center of gravity played by Stephen Rea, runs into the admiring son of the original promoter and learns of plans for re-booting the event. Willing to suspend his condom vending machine business to put to rights the Fruit’s unfinished business, Tony first meets up with the still-fetching Karen (Juliet Aubrey), the band’s former Girl Friday, who ditches her corporate job for a chance to be their manager. In witty sequence, they round up bassist and founding member Les (Jimmy Nail), the flamboyant but insecure lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) and incorrigible, taxman-dodging drummer Beano (Timothy Spall). Inviting himself back in the fold is Hughie (Billy Connolly), the band’s wildman road manager and the film’s droll narrating voice.
Director Brian Gibson culled plenty of sly ensemble comedy from this crack line-up of Boomer-aged likely lads. Mainly valued as a supporting player, the great Bill Nighy is the nominal lead here as the aristocratic Ray, recovering alcoholic and middling solo act who’s trying to revive his career and hold onto his country estate. But just as big a presence in his absence is Brian, the founding guitarist who was the once the Fruit’s leading creative light but now is missing in action. True to the outsized influence of real life rockers who die young or flame out (like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, who Brian resembles in flashbacks), Rays suggests to Les that the group can’t advance so long as the brooding bassist “worships the ground that Brian vomited on.”
But press on they do. Karen’s appeal to their old record company for a U.K. university tour and a catalog re-issue gets met with a counteroffer for a round of nightclub gigs in Holland and Belgium. Soon, Strange Fruit are off on their own logo-emblazoned coach, tooling down the highways and byways of the Low Countries—at first stumbling and bumbling but soon enough, with the help of their young new hotshot guitarist, getting their act together like in this prototypical hitting-their-stride sequence.
Jumping into action as Ray’s Ninja Rock Wife is actress Helena Bergstrom. Well played!
The film’s music was co-written by Chris Difford of Squeeze and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones and the band songs are an uncanny amalgamation of 70s glam, prog and arena rock styles (Bill Nighy and Jimmy Nail do their own singing). That is crucial because, instead of filling in clichéd character slots, the film shows a rock band just as it is, with its variable tastes, mismatched ideals, awkward male camaraderie and personal imperfections, trying to reach a united peak where each member still gets individual fulfillment. It’s not easy to hold all this together, especially as the 20th anniversary festival draws closer but fate has a way of cutting both ways. Plus, Les has an ace in the hole: a long tucked away show-stopper song, an 8-minute flag waver called “The Flame Still Burns” that would be just perfect for a certain surprise guest…
Sadly, this would be director Brian Gibson’s last film as he died in 2004, aged 59. Gibson had a knack for music-related films. True, he did helm 1980’s rather regrettable “Breaking Glass” where the strident Brit singer Hazel O’Connor rises to unlikely messianic fame, although “Quadrophenia” star Phil Daniels was very good in the role of her manager. More successfully, he later made the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story” for HBO.
For more on the movies that make up the “Punk Rock Girls” film series, check out Melissa Anderson’s cool piece on the Village Voice website:
My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is due for early next year.