Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

Bronson Pinchot did an interesting interview with the AV Club a few years back where he talked about how strange it was to work with Tom Cruise on Risky Business. Apparently, Cruise was in the habit of shoehorning anti-gay remarks into every conversation - even conversations about utterly non-sexual things like ice cream. Pinchot doesn't speculate about whether Cruise is gay, but he does point out that it says something about a person if they bring up a topic just for the purpose of negating it. It's a weird thing to do, and it reflects an agenda in a way that's pretty suspect.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a film which has a pretty aggressive agenda, and it executes that agenda in a pretty suspect way. The film is about a trio of musicians from a dead end town in Pennsylvania who semi-accidentally luck into a slot as the opening act for a touring punk band. Even though they don't have any good songs, and the songs they do have they can't play well, and only one of them has any stage presence, they end up becoming an overnight sensation. The film really pushes the idea that they would be the next big thing in a way that didn't make sense to me. I get that attitude sells, and their lead singer is really good at acting aggressively snotty, but their shows were painful to sit through. Why was the film so intent on making this terrible act appear to be a skyrocketing success?

In the third act the answer became clear: its because they were destined to sell out their values, and that meant they had to have something someone was willing to buy first. Basically, the film forces them to become (unnaturally) popular, and then (inexplicably) has them become phonies, all to make an (unnecessary) point about the nature of success. If this film was a documentary I could probably buy their arc - in real life the music business surely has stranger stories than this - but it isn't a documentary, and so much of what transpired felt forced; it needed to have the weight of logic or the weight of truth behind it, but it has neither.

With a little bit of restraint, this movie could have been a solid tale about a flash bulb band that achieves instant but unsustainable success. Unfortunately, the film has no restraint. It's implied that the three women in the Stains have had Dickensian childhoods - their lead singer is a teenager with two dead parents, stuck living in a house where the utilities have been shut off. Their instant stardom arrives via a story on the local nightly news that was so aimless and poorly written that it doesn't seem like it would have made it to the air, much less brainwashed a legion of teens. But I suppose all the aimless youth of Pennsylvania were waiting for a meandering local news story to tell them who to worship, because by their second or third show the Stains are being met with legions of fans, all of whom have copied the lead singers haircut. But easy come, easy go - those fans are so fickle that It only takes one speech for them to realize that they've worshiped a false idol for all of a week. The contrast between where they start and where they end up is so severe that it defies belief, and the film's timeline doesn't make any sense.

Overall, the Fabulous Stains seems like a wasted opportunity. The cast is game and impossibly young. I think its the only film I've ever seen where Ray Winstone doesn't look like a grizzled old man, but he proves that the fierce anger that defined him in films like Sexy Beast was always within him; he kills his role as a contemptuous punk rocker. It's also funny to see Laura Dern dressed up as the Stains' bassist; I know that she's played sexpot roles but in my mind she'll always be defined by the mom jeans wearing character she played in Jurassic Park, so watching her here was a bit of a trip. Most importantly, Diane Lane nails Corrine Burns' snotty attitude so well that you could really see her being a powerful frontwoman. If the film had known how to put them to good use then it could have been a hell of a movie, but it consistently loses the actors in underwritten and ill paced scenes that don't add up to much at the end.

Personally, I don't believe in the concept of selling out - that requires a conception of "authenticity" that I don't really hold. At the same time, I am also skeptical of capitalism, which tends to favor easily digestible fads over complicated but more interesting works of art. As such, I'm always interested in debates about "selling out" - I tend to find it easy to play devil's advocate for either side. Since I share it's preoccupations, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains could have been right up my alley. Unfortunately, it expresses its argument so clumsily that I don't buy into it's thesis at all. Turning a conversation about ice cream into a homphobic screed says more about you than it does about gay people, and this film about selling out says more about the filmmaker's cynicism than it does about the hollowness of the punk scene.

Winner: The Cat

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains on IMDB