(Originally published on In Review Online.)
The Runaways’ place in rock history—somewhere between feminal compatriots Patti Smith and the Go-Go’s yet buried under a marginalized LA punk scene dominated by The Germs and X—is slight at best. An analytical survey or even critical analysis, however, will never reveal the tabloid worthy story of five underage girls thrust into the male dominated rock culture of 1975. First time feature director Floria Sigismondi is given the impossible task of translating a cliché riddled narrative into respectable ticket-selling entertainment with some sort of fan-adoring accuracy. Parlay the chore with two high profile young Hollywood starlets and you have expectations that are likely to trump the film itself. Although far from perfect, The Runaways is able to deliver some of its own ‘dead end justice’ by cashing in on Sigismondi’s music video flair and two convincing performances from Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning who are able to transcend their tweeny Twilight ways.
The film opens with a visceral drop of menstrual blood hitting the pavement—the result of Cherie Currie’s blossoming womanhood and an unambiguous statement of the film’s own defiance. Unlike Zack Snyder’s wish to epitomize revelatory bloodshed through a drop of glossy red on a smiley face in The Watchmen, Sigismondi offers a far more personal invocation of unchecked, yet no less celebratory, fertile bloodletting. As Currie procures her period, so Joan Jett procures a leather jacket. The portrait of two awkward teenagers quickly, and somewhat heavy-handedly, transform into those of rock stars in the fast lane. Jett’s ambitions are the catalyst, approaching well-known LA producer Kim Fowley, exclaiming, “I play electric guitar.” You can see the Svengali gears turning as Fowley ropes in a drummer, guitar player and bass player with promises that they would be bigger than The Beatles. Fowley saw the appeal of a heavy hitting all girl rock band, but also realized the need for a sex kitten front woman: in his own words, a Bridget Bardot or, in the case of The Runaways, 15-year-old Cherie Currie. And so The Runaways were born—they gain moderate success, indulge in various substances, engage in sex, emote the problems of teenage rock stars, and eventually cash and burn with the inevitable promise of rebirth and recovery.
The story is about as pat as any episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” but Sigismondi is able to turn it into something far more appealing, despite narrative stops and starts. Resisting the temptation to go overboard with the era, the production design is a perfect balance of west coast fashion and grit of the day. The music is a visual rally cry, where you see and hear both director and actors at their best. Stewart unequivocally becomes the slouchy Joan Jett and Fanning morphs into the brash Cherie Curie, not to mention the likeness of Stella Maeve and Scout Taylor-Compton to Sandy West and Lita Ford. Unfortunately, stilted scenes meant to propel or expound the story end up deflating these moments of musical elation. A sequence in which Currie goes to audition for the band and the song “Cherry Bomb” is written— on the spot—seems bogus despite its factual bearing. Although instrumental in the so-called character development of the band, its portrayal is flat and lifeless. So too is Currie’s ultimate departure from the band and she tells Jett, “I can’t do this anymore; I want my life back.” Jett’s unsurprising reply is almost too predictable: “This is my life.” The band’s epoch is the film’s dramatic missed opportunity.
Looking at The Runaways creditials, it is no coincidence that the film hovers around Jett and Currie and their various triages. Both Cherie Currie (offering up her titillating autobiography for source material) and Joan Jett (on staff as executive producer) were involved from the beginning, working closely with director and actors. The other band members fade into the background, giving room for Michael Shannon, master of crazy, to bring maniacal Kim Fowley to vivid life. His desire to exploit the young women from just about every angle and to verbally and physically pummel them into punk rock goddesses is the film’s morality play. During a practice session in a broken down trailer, Fowley screams, “This isn’t about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido!” Fortunately, Sigismondi finds parity in The Runaway’s story between burgeoning libido and eventual liberation. This sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll biopic plays out as one might expect, but there is also a tasteful amount of restraint, leaving out the most sensational portions of the band’s history, including rape, pregnancy, attempted suicide and enough internal strife among the five band members to create a soap opera that would give “The L Word” a run for its money. Jett, a tireless rocker even today, has always urged people to appreciate the music, not the rumors, and, for better or worse, The Runaways does just that. Following a general trend in band bio-dramas, such as Control and What We Do is Secret, the dramatic interpretations of the music upstage the formal scripting of a well-documented and recent past. Sitting in a well-equipped movie theater and watching The Runaways perform, via Stewart and Fanning, may be the most perfect form of self-indulgent time travel I will ever get.