“Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains”: A neglected punk satire saved by Night Flight!

By on August 1, 2016

Take Off to Rock and Cult,” now available for streaming on Night Flight Plus, offers generous details of the diverse feature films the program showcased for years. Among them was Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, a movie that started with a script from an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, was chosen for production by a legendary music mogul turned director, and although it was ultimately dumped by its studio, it went on to become a cult favorite after it was regularly aired on “Night Flight,” beginning in 1985.

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Nancy Dowd made waves in Hollywood with her screenplay for the raucous 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot.  She was interested in the burgeoning punk rock music created by the Ramones and Sex Pistols.

On a trip to England, she was introduced to respected U.K. punk chronicler and The Clash manager Caroline Coon, and together they toured with emerging bands, with Dowd intent on writing a screenplay about the movement.

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Nancy Dowd with Lauren Bacall after receiving her Academy Award for Coming Home

By the time her screenplay All Washed Up was finished, Dowd had won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 1978 Vietnam drama Coming Home.

With this combination of hits, her music drama was bought by Paramount. The story followed the rough fortunes of three girls forming a band called The Stains to escape their lousy circumstances.

Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan had wanted to direct, but the project was ultimately set up with rock promoter and founder of the Dunhill and Ode record labels Lou Adler.

Adler, who previously produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, had made his directing debut for Paramount with Ode-signed comedians Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, a $2 million production that earned a then-huge $44 million in its initial release.

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The film provided early leading roles for Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Marin Kanter, and Ray Winstone, and supporting roles for members of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Tubes, and other musicians. Coon signed on as creative consultant. The project was shot in Vancouver in 1981, and Dowd was present for the shoot.

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Dowd, who graciously answered email questions for Night Flight, recalled the time as a miserable, shaming business. The first day of shooting, the elderly camera operator groped her on the set, but Dowd insists it wasn’t, as had been reported, the harassment that got to her: it was when Adler made her punk heroine wield a tambourine.

She endured until the week before completion of principal photography, when she returned home. She was not allowed to see the completed picture, and used her pseudonym, Rob Morton, for credit on the finished film.

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After what were deemed disastrous test-screenings, Lane, Dern, and Kanter were summoned a year after shooting was completed to film a new “upbeat” ending written by Adler.

By this time, Dern was significantly taller than she previously appeared in the film. All Washed Up was rechristened Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains.

Still doubting the film’s prospects, Paramount gave it a token release in Denver, Colorado, in 1982, and shunted it off to cable shortly after.

During the initial years of “Night Flight,” its broadcast home USA Network had been run as a joint venture between Time Inc. (before its merger with Warner Communications), Universal, and Paramount. The network was mostly programmed with films and TV shows owned by its parent studios that were deemed unsuitable for normal syndication, mostly for lack of star power or mass appeal.

As such, in 1985, “Night Flight” had been requested by USA to start adding feature films to their lineup that were available from the aforementioned studios.

Paramount provided a significant number of films to “Night Flight,” including Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Brian Gibson’s Breaking Glass and Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains.

Stains would soon become the most-played and remembered of all the features programmed into the “Night Flight” block.

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Stains never received an official VHS release in any country, due to its soundtrack. Like many films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, featured pop songs were initially licensed only for theatrical and television exposure, so to release a film on home video, a new deal had to be made, and often times the price to clear music would skyrocket.

Nonetheless, Stains slowly built its reputation through bootleg trading and zine culture. And it gained an important champion who used her unusual platform to boost its profile.

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Sarah Jacobson was barely out of her teens when she moved to San Francisco to pursue filmmaking, studying at San Francisco Art Institute under avant-garde provocateur George Kuchar. Her self-distributed 1997 feature debut, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, drew rave reviews from Roger Ebert, John Waters, and Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon. Jacobson became a loud voice in media for female filmmakers.

Jacobson frequently used her respect to elevate Stains, writing a definitive history on the film for the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine in 1997, followed by a 2000 documentary short for producer John Pierson’s IFC program Split Screen.

Both projects featured interviews with many of the principals involved. Dowd, who agreed to speak to Jacobson after previously declining interviews on the film, had no idea of the mini-Sugarman-like status that had grown around it, in fact, no idea of its fate at all.

Tragically, while her segment promised “Stains” would become available to own, Jacobson would not live to see it happen, dying at age 32 from endometrial cancer in 2004.

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In 2008, Stains finally made its official home video premiere through Rhino Entertainment, who agreed to pay the music clearance fees. They also announced that the film’s soundtrack, advertised in the closing credits but never issued, would be released as well.

However, weeks before the street date, for reasons not made public, the soundtrack was cancelled and almost all pressed copies destroyed. Due to a communications error, mp3s of the album did go up for sale on Amazon for a week before getting pulled. The DVD is now out of print.

Even today, Paramount clearly has a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about Stains. While the film is available from them for streaming at Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube, this is an actual studio-approved synopsis of the movie found at those pages:

“The media and disaffected teens mistake the acerbic rants of an obnoxious teenage punk rocker as a rallying cry for the women of America, launching her and her talentless group to national stardom.”

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The film has received comparably more respect from generations of musicians. In the past, it was championed by Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. In the present, all-girl power pop band Ex Hex released a video in 2015 for their song “Don’t Wanna Lose,” directed by Lara Jean Gallagher, full of visual and costume references to the film.

In 2014, Will Pettite, an archivist and editor at Paramount, passed away. A memorial was held at the studio, and “Stains,” his favorite film, was screened. Dowd wrote this statement which was read at the wake:

“I wrote the movie that will be screened. It was a personal catastrophe. [It] lingered on my soul as an abject failure. A wound. A shame. Yes, a stain. For years. Decades. I never spoke its name…I cringed at even the glancing memory of its production…And then in the mid-nineties a telephone call from the Writers Guild alerted me that an improbable underground cult had grown around this shackled orphan, this blot on my personal landscape. Since then, all the fans I have met, each and every one, have given me huge joy and a conviction that there is the possibility that our worst moments, our darkest days, may be/might be transfigured, given time, luck and the good intentions of perfect strangers. Or not…Certainly anyone who works in a studio knows that life is unfair and often brutal. But movies can bring us all closer together. They reach out, and we live on.”

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Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains
may have never reached the popular heights of rock films like Purple Rain, but over the decades it has found and touched the audience that Nancy Dowd was most concerned about reaching: artistically ambitious youth, especially young women, unwilling to accept a status quo that marginalizes them, and eager to grab an instrument and make a noise to be heard.

And that is a message always worth putting out.

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The author gratefully acknowledges the indispensable assistance of Nancy Dowd.

Go here to learn more about the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant.

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About Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck is a writer and cultural historian best known as the Movie Geek from Comedy Central's "Beat the Geeks." He was an associate producer and researcher for Robert Rodriguez' "The Director's Chair" interview series on the El Rey network. He created the eclectic blog The Projector Has Been Drinking, and his screening series Cinema Tremens revived many rarely-exhibited films, featuring interviews with their creators and champions. He has recorded more than ten DVD commentary tracks, and has been a memorable guest on many podcasts. He cites discovering "Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains" on "Night Flight" as one of the significant milestones of his cultural evolution.