It’s hard to believe that 35 years ago a girl with a guitar was a scandalous thing. If nothing else, “The Runaways” provides a little historical perspective on a time not so long ago when aggressive axe-wielding female musicians were seen as a threat to their male counterparts. But instead of celebrating the Runaways’ pioneering achievements and influence, the movie comes across as a cautionary tale about what happens when teenage girls run wild.
“The Runaways,” which centers on the relationship between Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), premiered at Sundance Sunday night, but with Apparition already signed on as distributor, the movie played here mainly to drum up excitement prior to its March 19 wide release.
The film does a masterful job of showing how the band, which started as five questionably talented outcasts in Los Angeles with ambitions that far outweighed their abilities, zoomed to stardom on a bullet train steered by producer/manager Kim Fowley.Even at the group’s height, the Runaways’ passion, verve and raw appeal surpassed its talent (with the possible exception of guitarist Lita Ford, who did not cooperate with the making of the movie). Cult hit “Cherry Bomb,” written on the fly as an audition piece for Currie if the movie is to be believed, was all tease and come ons strung together with simple rhymes and a few chord changes in the best tradition of punk.
The four years from the band’s inception to its 1979 implosion pass in a blur as Fowley keeps the Runaways working at a breakneck pace, including a tour of Japan where they arrived to screaming, hysterical fans. If the band enjoyed one moment of its run, even the joy of playing on stage, it certainly doesn’t come across here on film. Instead, it seems as if the time passed in drug-addled haze with the young teenagers never having a moment to savor its success or take a breather before Fowley thrust them back on the treadmill. Quite frankly, if the ride was as desultory as it comes across in the movie, it’s a miracle the band lasted as long as it did.
Jett is all leather-clad testosterone, while Currie is a fragile, estrogen-fueled flower. And in many ways, it’s that contrast that fuels the band as much as it destroys it as the other band members become either jealous of Currie’s sex kitten image, totally created and later exploited by Fowley, or feel her plaything, come- hither stance, complete with corset and thigh-high stockings, undermines their musical credibility. The seemingly brief affair--or is it just sexual experimenting-- between Jett and Currie is played out in blurry cutaways and there’s never a conversation or even a knowing look between the pair over their night spent together.
Stewart’s Jett is an intense teen who seldom smiles, but who knows what she wants and that’s to play her electric guitar. Gruff and sullen, she nevertheless has drive to spare and its her vision as much as Fowley’s that propels the band. Stewart, who, like Fanning, does her own singing and playing, sounds and looks remarkably like Jett. It’s one of her strongest performances so far as she captures Jett’s fierce work ethic and undiluted desire to play music free of gimmicks. Plus, we see her toughening exterior and gritty determination as the band withstands various assaults.
Fanning’s Currie is a tentative creature so wounded by her absentee, alcoholic father and jet setting mother (an effective Tatum O'Neal) that she grabs onto the rope thrown to her by the Runaways before she has time to figure out if it is a lifeline or a sinking anchor. Fanning, who looks like a younger Kate Hudson, seems to struggle more with the role than Stewart, but that could be because the 15-year-old Currie was less grounded than Jett and Fanning has decided to play that fragility filtered through a woozy drug coma for much of the movie. Plucked by Fowley out of a nightclub to audition for the band, Fanning portrays Currie as a lost soul, whose only way to fight against Fowley and the unrelenting machine is to quit the band.
Michael Shannon, best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in “Revolutionary Road” is the stand-out here, but that’s also because he gets to chew the scenery as the larger-than-life Fowley. He reminds the girls that this isn’t about “women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido,” that “rock and roll is a blood sport,” and many other profane turns of phrase we can’t print here. It’s nearly impossible to play Fowley as over-the-top, obnoxious and creepy as he is in real life, but Shannon nails it. Also impressive is Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter, as Cherie's left-behind twin, Marie.
Director Floria Sigismondi, who also wrote the screenplay based on Currie’s autobiography “Neon Angel,” is best known as a music video director (Sheryl Crow, David Bowie) and photographer. She has a keen eye, as one would expect, and the concert footage looks authentic, but the movie often resembles a montage of stylized, gauzy photos and stand-alone snapshots that don’t hang together cohesively and jarringly bump against each other with no transition from one to the next. Plus, we see little character development—unless being perpetually gorked or petulant count as growth-- as Currie, and to a lesser extent Jett, go through these life-altering changes. This is their story and both Currie and Jett, who executive produced, coached the young stars playing them, so presumably, they are happy with the dark, raw portrayal of their short-lived super nova, but both would have been served better by more fully-fleshed out characterizations.
The movie doesn’t have to deal with each of the band members equally, but the fact that there are screen updates at the end on Jett, Currie and Fowley with no mention whatsoever of Ford’s post-Runaways success or that drummer Sandy West passed away from cancer in 2006 seems unfair (although during the press day for the movie, but Currie and Jett were hopeful that those may be added in the final version) . They at least deserve a footnote, as they are reduced to bit players in the film.
Overall, "The Runaways" is a stylized, often glum, look at the rise of a groundbreaking rock group who left a permanent mark on rock and roll. It would have been nice if more of the joy that came from being part of history came through here.