The Runaways (Director: Floria Sigismondi): I grew up just a few years after the members of The Runaways, and so not only did I listen to their music, but also to the music they grew up on. That being said, I had very reasonable expectations for this film. No disrespect to Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, or director Floria Sigismondi, but I saw it as a film pitched at young women with no knowledge of the music or the era. All I was hoping was that the film would deliver the same energy and fun that the music did for me. Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by the film’s careful reconstruction of the era, down to the tiniest details, as well as by the believable and energetic performances. Though it’s not in the same echelon as something like Almost Famous, The Runaways deserves to reach audiences far beyond the teenaged demographic.
The arc of a rock and roll movie is pretty standard. The band is formed, learns to play, performs in scruffy dives, achieves breakthrough success, gets into trouble with drugs, booze, and/or sex, begins to hate their success and each other, and then breaks up. Sigismondi doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but she does make sure that each stage of the standard rock and roll story feels authentic to the experience of one of the first all-girl rock groups in history. But this is also no straight-ahead girl power tract, for that wouldn’t be historically accurate.
In 1975, the glam rock movement was coming to an end. For the previous five years, male rockers had felt free to experiment with their styles and their sexuality, at least on stage. The success of androgynous rockers like Bowie and Marc Bolan had actually opened the door a crack for women to get into this previously boys-only territory. Performers like Suzi Quatro had ventured into guitar rock, but were always backed by male bands. So when we meet Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) practicing electric guitar licks in her bedroom, her only career path seems to be to find some guys to play with. Except that’s not what she wants at all. When she spots producer Kim Fowley (a perfectly creepy Michael Shannon) outside Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco (an influential club owned by LA disc jockey Bingenheimer, a man worthy of his own film), she brashly approaches him with her idea for an all-girl rock band. He’s all over the idea, and puts together a four-piece band in short order. But he’s missing the vital piece, a frontwoman who is both sexy and glamorous. When he finds 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), he gets all that with the added bonus of her “jailbait” status as forbidden fruit.
Earlier, we’d seen the awkward Cherie attempting to crawl out from under her older sister’s shadow. Her love for Bowie gives her a protective mask of glam style, and this is just the look Fowley, Jett, and the newly-christened Runaways are looking for. Sigismondi does an excellent job with both Jett and Currie’s “origin” stories, tapping into the deep feeling of being different from your peers that most creative people feel in high school. Despite their very different appearances and motives for joining the band, the girls quickly bond, with Jett’s interest obviously a little more than friendly.
Fowley is an absolute bastard, and we know early on that he cheats them out of their earnings. But he is dead-on when he tells them that they need to toughen up if they want to play in a man’s world. He has local kids collect trash (including metal cans and pieces of dog shit) to pelt them with while they perform. This isn’t a typical “girl group,” he tells them, they’re learning to play the cock rock that he feels men have been neglecting by wearing lipstick the past few years. “It’s not about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido,” is his memorable credo for the band. They’re selling sex, the image of out-of-control underage bad girls, and he knows it will be huge. Turns out he’s right. But it will take the band years to get away from his control. For them, female self-empowerment starts as a gimmick and only gradually becomes a truth they can live by.
Their success leads to a recording contract and eventually a tour of Japan, where the wheels start to come off. Jealousies erupt over a sexy photo shoot Fowley arranged just for Currie, and her response is to retreat further into booze and drugs, despite the fact her own father is at home dying from his alcoholism. Though Jett had been her sometime lover, she feels abandoned by her when the band accuse her of being too self-centred. Tired of Fowley’s control and the band’s resentment, she quits.
For Jett, it’s only a temporary hiccup. She’s only ever wanted to play rock music, and her drive will take her to the top of the charts a few years later with her new band, the Blackhearts. Currie continues to struggle with her addictions and after failed attempts at both a solo singing and an acting career, leaves the entertainment business entirely. Years later, she writes her memoir, “Neon Angel,” on which this film is based. As well, Joan Jett served as an executive producer, so hopefully that means both women’s remembrances are accurately portrayed in the film.
Though the story is an old and somewhat predictable one, The Runaways tells it with sass and energy. It’s helped by an amazing soundtrack and as I mentioned above, by authentic performances, both dramatic and musical. Old rockers, take your daughters to this one. You’ll both love it.
Note: Though I haven’t seen the final poster, I assume they’ll use the above one with the stars in it. Sadly, we probably won’t get to see this amazing teaser poster in the theatres.
The Runaways opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on March 19th, expanding nationwide on April 9th.