Synopsis: Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning star as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in the music-fueled coming of age story of the groundbreaking, all-girl rock band, The Runaways. They fall under the Svengali-like influence of rock impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, Pearl Harbor), who turns the rebellious Southern California kids into a rock group with outrageous success. With its tough-chick image and raw talent, the band quickly earns a name for itself and so do its two leads: Joan is the band’s pure rock n’ roll heart, while Cherie, with her Bowie-Bardot looks, is the sex kitten.
The Runaways 7.75
Biographical films tend to turn me off. Not only do they often skew the facts to paint their subject(s) in a certain light (scenario one: dial up the drama to make martyrs of them / scenario two: white-wash the story to make it a feel-good movie ), but they’re often of the cookie-cutter variety: similar and, thus, quite dull. So I avoid them unless the subject REALLY appeals to me.
I am only a minor fan of either Joan Jett or Lita Ford, mind you. Aside from “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Jett left no impression on me until I picked up ‘Pure and Simple’ at the library. I adored the album, but not even enough to want to explore her discography. Similarly, I knew of Ford because she had a reputation as a shredder and because she did a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. I picked up one of two Greatest Hits albums and liked most of it.
But it took many years before I discovered that they had both started off in the same band: The Runaways. And, truth be told, I knew nothing about them. I didn’t even bother exploring them until many years later, only to discover that I like some of it, but much prefer Jett and Ford’s solo work. It might only be due to the crummy quality of the recordings I had but, to me, The Runaways’ music lacked serious hooks and heart.
Still, I have a weakness for women who rock, and I kept an open mind regarding The Runaways. And, every time I listen to The Donnas, I immediately think of the rock chicks that started it all – not because they’re the same, but because The Donnas wouldn’t exist without them (and neither would L7, Drain sth, Jack Off Jill, Shonen Knife, …etc.). The Runaways basically changed the game by playing by the boys’ rules – much like the first female athletes in ANY male-dominated sport. And that required some serious cojones (or should I say ovario?).
From a purely feminist standpoint, their story is essential. In a rock world that is still dominated by men, the few inroads that were made can all be attributed to women like these – even though they were probably too young to fully understand the implications, and even though they were mentored by a man. After all, intentional or not, these five women did what few/no one else was doing – they eschewed disco and ballads for angst and fury, tearing new ones on anyone in their way.
This film is based on ‘Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway’, by lead singer Cherie Currie. I know very little about the accuracy of the book or how well it transitioned from page to screen, but I suspect that there must be some truth to both seeing as Currie and Jett were involved in the making of the film and subsequent DVD – clearly, if founding member Jett had been in disagreement with Currie’s recollections, she would have steered clear of the project.
Beyond that, the only thing I know about this film is that, at the time of its release, all anyone was talking about was the infamous kiss between Stewart and Fanning. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less, and wondered why it was even news – twenty years after the ‘Roseanne’ kiss on primetime TV, it seemed trivial to me. And, given the context, I was of the opinion that there were much more notable things to talk about (anyway, the “kiss”, as beautifully and suggestively shot as it was, was mostly Jett blowing smoke into Currie’s mouth).
But I decided to pick up the film anyway; I was curious to hear more about The Runaways and had heard good things about Stewart’s performance.
At first, I thought that Stewart was playing Bella all over again, but with a bad haircut; she would sulk and act all depressed, like an unhappy, miserable child (seeing as she plays a 15-year old, this last bit was forgivable). However, when the Joan Jett persona finally kicked into high gear, Stewart was almost lost in the character, even affecting a body language that one could easily attribute to the burgeoning rocker. By the end, I was almost completely convinced. (to be fair, I suspect that only Jett herself would have satisfied me ).
Fanning was also very good, but I found her too fragile, too shaky for my tastes. Perhaps this quality is inherent to the original Currie, but the only time that Fanning kicked @$$ was on stage. The rest of the time, she was a brittle little doll with dreams larger than she could contain or handle. The rest of the band (Lita Ford, Sandy West, and “Robin”) were all played solidly enough. I was quite surprised to discover that Ford was played by Scout Taylor-Compton, ’cause I didn’t recognize her one bit. (well done, Scout! )
I found the picture a bit thin on details, but given its length and its focus on Cherie Currie and, to a lesser extent, Joan Jett, it’s hardly surprising that we only got a sketchy overview of the band’s development and success. For the most part ‘The Runaways’ is an origin story through the eyes of our two key leads, with some minor development before plunking down for the aftermath and conclusion; there is no real sense of how successful the band actually was or what the group dynamics were.
Still, even though the film breezes along, I found that it kept enough key elements in play to make it worthwhile: it gave us a good understanding of Currie and Jett’s respective motivations, provided insight into the gruelling work that it took for the band to get it together, and also explained their backgrounds just enough to understand what was at stake. In that respect it’s a success.
But I imagine that the overall result would have been largely improved by an extra 20-25 minutes explaining what happened during their recording and touring years. Granted, a documentary might do this part better (The Runaways’ bassist Vicki Blue directed ‘Edgeplay: A film about The Runaways’. Perhaps this might help fill in the blanks…), but I think that it would have been essential to our understanding.
Because, as it stands, we get the impression that The Runaways were together for a few months and that they never even recorded an album (we see them in the studio once, but that session was canned). While they had a meteoric rise and, thus, there’s not much to work with, the film doesn’t do a good job of explaining exactly what happened or situating what we were seeing in time. In this case, however, I’m happy to report that it’s only a weakness of the film, not a mortal wound.
Although many reviews claimed that ‘The Runaways’ was an average movie about a rock band, I disagree. Granted, it doesn’t lay any new ground; most of these films tell similar tales. However, it tells the story of a groundbreaking band of female rockers and it does it relatively well. Combined with a few strong performances and a decent fleshing out of key players, this picture has a more relatable and human quality to it than many of its peers.