Review: The Runaways

The rise and fall of 70s all-girl rock/punk group The Runaways, featuring 15 year-old Bowie fan Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) on vocals, tomboyish guitarist/songwriter Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), and managed/moulded by a pervert Svengali named Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Fowley sees a ‘Jail Bait’ goldmine, particularly with his Lolita-esque singer. Meanwhile, Currie and Jett form a strong bond, as the former also enjoys an escape from her unhappy home life. Unfortunately, drugs, egos, and in-fighting start to tear the group (and the central duo) apart. Scout Taylor-Compton plays guitarist Lita Ford, Riley Keough plays Currie’s jealous older sister, and Tatum O’Neal and Brett Cullen are Currie’s trashy parents. Robert Romanus has an amusing cameo as a guitar teacher who refuses to teach Jett any rock songs, due to her gender (Romanus co-starred with the real-life Currie in “Foxes” and also played the ticket-scalping high schooler in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”).

Lousy 2010 biopic from writer-director Floria Sigismondi is less about the (arguably) pioneering all-girl punk rock group than it is about two of its members specifically; Guitarist Joan Jett and lead singer Cherie Currie. So if you were hoping to find out the inner workings of the mind of Lita Ford, you won’t find that here. In fact, you won’t even find a bio on her at the end of the film, which at least gives bios on Jett and Currie. I mean, she’s Lita Fucking Ford, a pretty well-known rock/metal artist in her own right. And bassist Jackie Fox? She’s not even in the film at all, being replaced by a nondescript bassist (kinda like the current Bon Jovi line-up, when you think about it). The film is executive produced by Joan Jett and the script is based on Currie’s own autobiography, whilst Fox and Ford apparently wanted nothing to do with the film, which explains a helluva lot. But why call it ‘The Runaways’, then? It’s not about them (“Cherry Bomb” would’ve been a better title), it’s about the relationship between Jett and Currie, mixed with a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll movie clichés, and Michael Shannon essentially paying homage to John Lazar’s Ronnie ‘Z Man’ Barzell’ character from Russ Meyer’s fantastic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. Shannon (surely the modern Christopher Walken), looking like a mixture of drag queen and Ziggy Stardust, is a magnetic presence in the film, stealing his every scene with his sleazy weirdness and energy (Apparently the real Kim Fowley is even freakier than Shannon, if you can believe it). However, if this really is the true story of The Runaways, then they were a pretty generic band who seem to owe most of their success to a guy- Fowley, who formed them, co-wrote the songs, told them what to do and what to wear, and was pretty much an unofficial member of the band. The first all-girl band or the first manufactured band with all girls in it? Somehow, I don’t think that’s the message I was meant to get out of the film, but it’s what I indeed was thinking throughout.

The band also seem to have a rather uninteresting, unoriginal story to tell to be honest. It’s just your run-of-the-mill rise-and-fall of a rock band story, with all the usual sex, drugs, egos, in-fighting, and cries of ‘It’s about the music, maaaaan!’ thrown in. There isn’t an original bone in its body, and true or not, that doesn’t mean it was a story necessarily worth telling when “Almost Famous” said everything that was needed already (albeit largely from the rock journo POV). Debutant writer-director Sigismondi offers nothing fresh here. Joan Jett, to me, was more of an icon, an image, than an interesting person or talented musician. Maybe a film about The Bangles (whose music I actually prefer, to be honest) or even the underrated (particularly in the US) Canadian rocker Suzi Quatro, would’ve been more interesting than this film, which is too clichéd to even appeal to those too young to remember The Runaways. And despite focusing on Currie and Jett, it actually doesn’t do so with any real depth. You don’t really get to know them, Jett especially. This isn’t helped by the performances from Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett. Both are clearly miscast and out of their depth playing characters they don’t seem very familiar with, in a film set in a world, era, and genre that is clearly past their frame of reference. Personally, I don’t think rock ‘n’ roll exists in modern music, at least not in any fashion that I understand and so I don’t really blame the actresses if they aren’t overly familiar with mid 70s rock music. But it results in them being mere poseurs, their musical performances and physical mannerisms are just too forced and silly (Fanning’s vocal stylings on the signature hit ‘Cherry Bomb’- a pretty cool song- are truly cringe-worthy). This is partly because neither Stewart nor Fanning (who still seems like a little girl and not in a naughty Lolita way like Currie. She looks about 11!) seem to have the same wild, uninhibited spirit of rock stars. They’re too meek and completely lack charisma or any aura whatsoever. I always thought Joan Jett was a bit of a ‘try-hard’ and a bit forced in her swagger (and not nearly as talented a musician/singer as the Wilson sisters from Heart, come to think of it), but Stewart and Fanning are like little girls playing dress-up here. Stewart, instead of having ferocity and attitude, gives off a vibe of boredom, depression, and insecurity. What? I’m not even talking about the non-music scenes, either. She’s like that on stage, too and that ain’t any Joan Jett I’ve heard of. In fact, it seems a lot more like Kristen Stewart to me (I’ve since read that Jett apparently was shy on stage. But still, does that seem right to you? Sometimes the truth just doesn’t convince). It’s a shame the film weren’t made earlier because Angelina Jolie would’ve been perfect for Joan Jett, I reckon. Now there’s a girl who has clearly lived something similar to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and could probably do a passable Joan Jett imitation too. For those of you not familiar with Joan Jett, think about this: Does Kristen Stewart in any way remind you of Angelina Jolie? I think not, and her voice is way too small and ‘feminine’ for Jett, who always sounded like a heavy drinker and smoker to me. The one thing she does kinda get right is Jett’s posture and appearance on stage. I’ll give Stewart that, she’s obviously watched a few tapes before coming onto set.

Amazingly, Scout Taylor-Compton, in my view the worst working actress today, fares best of the girls as the outspoken and increasingly annoyed/jealous Lita Ford. However, that’s only because she looks quite a bit like the real Ford, as her performance is still typically awful. I had to laugh at Ford getting pissy at Cherie for having a sexualised image that took away from the music. Lita Ford? Really? Apparently it’s true, though, which makes it even funnier to be honest. She obviously changed her tune very quickly on that, no pun intended (Lita’s a helluva guitarist, so she can get away with it, though, I guess). Also, what’s with all the lesbianism? No, I don’t have even the slightest problem watching chicks make out (quite the opposite), but Joan and Cherie have a ‘thing’ going on it seems, and there’s other bits here and there (masturbating to Farah Fawcett), but we never get any sense of what we were meant to make of all of it. Were Joan and Cherie genuinely lovers? Friends with benefits? or was it just something to pass the time? I was never sure. In real life, you don’t need to put a label on something, of course, but in a film, everything in a film should be there for a specific reason (and I think shameless Sapphic titillation is a perfectly valid reason, just so we’re clear), and I wasn’t sure of the reason here.

This just seemed so superficial and full of the usual rock ‘n’ roll movie clichés and mostly acted out by a bunch of unconvincing wannabes. It was more a synopsis than a movie, I never got into this one at all.

Rating: C


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