The story of a pioneering female rock band winds up just another biopic
It's the classic rock 'n' roll story: A young guitarist hides a wounded soul behind a sneer and dreams of starting a band, and meets a visionary producer who might be able to make it happen. They find an eye-grabbing vocalist and write a potential hit in some dingy rehearsal space. A shitty life of dues-paying on the road leads to some word-of-mouth press and a hysteria-powered tour of Japan party-spotted with sex and drugs. A major-label record deal offers the group the chance to make it big, but creative differences and intraband strife lead to breaking up before the big time ever really hits. The best thing about The Runaways is that it gives the late 1970s all-girl hard rock band the same sort of conventional music biopic grandeur bestowed upon Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. The problems with The Runaways, though, is that the band isn't conventional.
Guitarist Joan Jett and the late drummer Sandy West were 17 and 16 when they started the Runaways in 1975, a meet brokered by 36-year-old producer Kim Fowley, who helped them recruit additional musicians--most notably 17-year-old guitarist Lita Ford and 15-year-old-vocalist Cherie Currie. A few albums for Mercury followed, along with a string of national tours and sold-out stints in Japan, where the group was as popular as ABBA and Kiss. By 1978, though, the band started to fizzle out after Currie's departure and separating ties from Mercury and Fowley, and disbanded in 1979. Jett, of course, started her own label in 1980 and propelled herself into pop stardom with her 1981 album I Love Rock 'n' Roll.
Director/co-writer Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways, based on Currie's memoir Neon Angel, ostensibly covers the same time period, but necessary narrative compression and an overall lack of subtlety gets in the way of the story. The movie even tries to cheekily set its tone with its first shot--a drop of blood hitting a 1975 Los Angeles sidewalk. It's menstrual blood, from the crotch of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who gets her first period as she and her sister Marie (Riley Keough) are heading out on the town. Such is the movie's overall tone: It's never going to let you forget that it's a movie about a female rock band, but it doesn't give equal weight to the "female" and the "rock."
Instead, it locates the Runaways' artistic struggle in the paths of Currie and Jett (Kristen Stewart) responding to Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, bringing a scary glee to being so demented). Currie becomes the sexpot eye-candy, the one who plays along with Fowley's ideas at the cost of her own well being. He never shies away from selling sex as part of the band's image: "This isn't about women's lib, it's about women's libido," he tells the band once assembled, and repeatedly encourages them to "think with their cocks."
Jett is the artist who wants to keep it all about the music, man, the one for whom starting a band saves her life. Both Jett and Currie have absent fathers. Both don't fit in at school or even the Sunset Strip world in which they traffic. And while they certainly bond in the band--see: sex, drugs above--the triad all too conveniently represents the heart vs. art vs. commerce fight for the band's soul. (Note: Lita Ford [Scout Taylor-Compton] and Sandy West [Stella Maeve] occupy bit roles in this version of the story.)
Director Sigismondi is a music-video vet, and her sure hand with live scenes certainly invigorates the movie, especially when Fowley and Jett write "Cherry Bomb" for Currie's audition, where the camera stares at Fanning until she begins to understand--and finally nails--the sort of ferocity Jett wants to rock and Fowley wants to exploit. And that's the main confident element here. Fanning, Stewart, and Shannon feel like they do much more with their characters than what's on paper. Stewart, as she did in 2009's Adventureland, puts a young face trying to be stoic on an inner struggle that's dying to get out. Shannon steals the movie with Fowley's antics, successfully eliciting a feeling of mild nausea for being such a genius manipulator. Fanning, meanwhile, is asked to do the most acting, and while there's a perverse thrill to watching her almost pulling a Nicolas Cage--an early scene where Currie lip-synchs David Bowie at a school talent show makes you completely forget this is the same young actress who spent the 2000s as the saucer-eyed moppet almost always in peril--Fanning doesn't quite have the chops to convey Currie's complex roller-coaster arc here. Though, damn, she does try.
Most disappointing, though, is that in its efforts to tell the tale of the all-girl rock band, the movie misses why people still care. While they slightly preceded West Coast punk, mid-1970s rock was already feeling like an old man's game. Yes, the Runaways were five girls who just wanted to rock, but in the process--intentionally or not--they were rewriting rock's presumed gender-qua-sexual rulebook. The Runaways tries to make them just another rock legend. But as Susie Bright's awesome blog post about the flick suggests, the Runaways offered a version of what rock's future could be.