Before websites like Atlas Obscura or Messy Nessy Chic existed, my friend Megan had always been a walking encyclopedia of obscure cultural knowledge, especially music. One of her earliest email usernames was “fabuloustain,” and before I asked her what it referenced, I decided to search for it myself. I found out that her username was a nod to the film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, a satire of the music industry in the ’80s that followed three rock-and-roll bands on a tour together, one of them being a trio of teenage girls whose overnight success and intense media scrutiny alter the course of the tour. At the time I discovered the film, I knew I had to see it — that was about ten years ago, and like the rest of the few people who have watched it, I’ve never forgotten it. The feminist overtones, set to a soundtrack of punk-rock music, make the underrated film an important one, shedding light on how women are treated in the music business.
Paramount Pictures never gave LAGTFS, which debuted in 1982, a wide theatrical release because it did so poorly with test audiences at a screening in Denver. Instead, it found fandom via late-night viewings on cable television and the art-house circuit, making fans of Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna. In an interview, Hanna explained how the film influenced her: “I remember that being the first film that I heard the term sellout, and I saw this feminist band being like, ‘Well, we don’t care if you call us that — we’re gonna do whatever we want.’ And that was a really powerful message for me and [fellow Bikini Kill band members] Kathi [Wilcox] and Tobi [Vail].” In 2008, the film was finally released on DVD.
The movie had a cast full of musical legends: Fee Waybill of the Tubes, Paul Simonon of the Clash, and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. The men, however, aren’t the marquee stars. Corinne (Diane Lane), her sister Tracy (Marianne Kanter), and her cousin Jessica (Laura Dern) are the teenage girls who make up the overnight-success band the film is named for, the Stains. When a local TV newscaster interviews Corinne shortly after the death of her mother and as she was getting fired from her job as a cook, many viewers, particularly young ones, felt a connection to her raw anger and frustration. So the newscaster does a follow-up interview with Corinne, Tracy and Jessica at home where Corinne gives sassy and sarcastic answers, along with an announcement that she and her band will be performing locally. Never mind that Corinne and her band have never played together and that their music skills are next to nonexistent.
Corinne then visits a concert venue and meets a small-time band promoter who’s currently on tour with two feuding bands (the Metal Corpses, on the verge of being washed-up, and the Looters, on the verge of stardom). Without listening to any of the Stains’ music, the concert promoter takes them on anyway, as he’s eager to make the tour more peaceful.
As expected with their lack of experience, the Stains perform horribly during their first concert. But Corinne makes an entrance with an edgy punk look: black-and-white hair that resembles a skunk’s fur; a red, see-through blouse that matches her fire-hot, lightning-bolt eye shadow and shimmery crimson lips. Her outfit is finished with a pair of bikini briefs, fishnets, and black heeled boots, all of which capture the venue’s attention. This entire ensemble, and outspoken statement on individuality, becomes the uniform of the Stains’ followers. As a result, a female newscaster declares the Stains a new voice of feminism and female empowerment: “I’m not reporting about a band as much as I am a very personal appeal for young women to resist.” My naïve inner-teenager, punk-rock heart initially made me roll my eyes at the thought of the Stains’ proclaiming “Be yourself” but embracing their minions, who look exactly like themselves. Upon further reflection, I’ve come to realize that fashion can be just as powerful in unison. Case in point: Time’s Up’s decision to black out the red carpet at the Golden Globes, or in the ’60s when women wore mini-skirts as a form of protest.
And boom: the Stains take off. Billy (the front person of the Looters) falls for Corinne, and Corinne steals one of his songs, a catchy punk tune called “The Professionals,” and makes it more popular than Billy could have ever imagined. While plagiarism isn’t something to be applauded, there has been a long history of men stealing work from women in the music industry and passing these ideas off as their own. The tables turn, and the Stains become the headliner. During a concert, Billy calls out the Stains’ fans for being an army of look-alikes, and the fans turn on the Stains. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, as the Stains find success that any music band would covet. Their song is on the radio.
Though it didn’t see the box-office numbers it hoped for, LAGTFS seemed to have had all the right elements for success: a legendary music producer as its director (Lou Adler), a cast of rock stars, and an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Even though the screenwriter is named as Rob Morton, it’s important to note that Rob was actually a woman. According to imdb.com, “The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, was unsatisfied with the editing and final cut of the film, so she changed her name to Rob Morton on the credits. The reality was Dowd’s involvement with the film ended early in the production process, when she was groped on set by a camera operator.”
Yet the essence of Dowd’s story lives on today. It’s no secret that men have dominated the music industry for years. LAGTFS portrayed the business just as it was and is: lacking equal numbers of women onstage or even behind the scenes in comparison to men. However, the Stains were able to work the system in their favor and turn the music business upside down. They moved forward strategically and embraced their message of “not putting out,” meaning, “Don’t get screwed, don’t be a jerk, don’t get had.”
Sabrina Cooper is a freelance writer based in Germany who has written for ELLE.com, NYLON.com and the United Nations. She co-edits here.