A film review by Craig J. Koban July 27, 2010

THE RUNAWAYS jj
½ 

2010, R, 100 mins.

 Jett Kristen Stewart
Cherie Currie: Dakota Fanning / Joan Jett: Kristen Stewart / Kim Fowley: Michael Shannon / Robin: Alia Shawkat / Lita Ford: Scout Taylor-Compton / Sandy West: Stella Maeve / Marie: Riley Keough / Mrs. Currie: Tatum O'Neal / Mr. Currie: Brett Cullen

Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi / Based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story

THE RUNAWAYS, a new rock/docudrama about the 1975 formation of one of the first all-female rock bands, tells a story about a very radical and influential group that paved the way for the success of so many female artists over the last 30 years.  The main problem with the film is that it ultimately does not do their important legacy justice.

The Runaways themselves - a conglomeration of fiercely temperamental female adolescents - were reckless, but determined, trailblazers for their time.  They did what arguably no other female group attempted: to match their skills and play on the same spirited level as their big male counterparts.  They definitely broke ground, but this film around them regrettably does not. 

If you exclude some finely tailored and evocative performances and well-tooled direction (by Canadian music video vet Floria Sigsimondi) that manages to capture a really exquisite eye for gritty period detail, THE RUNAWAYS is a pastiche of formulas from nearly every single musical genre film that we have seen countless times before.  The components here are woefully familiar: we have a relative rags-to-riches tale of unknowns that, through will and initiative, become known, but then later succumb to the vices of drugs and alcohol that lead them to a slow-burn death as a group.  We have the innocence of the early formation of The Runaways and then through perfunctory rehearsal scenes, girl-bonding scenes, backstage verbal battle scenes and then drunk and intoxicated scenes we see how the greatness of the group was soured forever.  All of this, no doubt, occurred to these young women, but it’s the manner with which it is revealed to us that feels generic and routine.  It’s especially surprising that, but the end, we really have no deeply invested insight into what made The Runaways really tick. 

The central fascination that I did have with the film was that it rightfully chronicled the all-female group as one, in hindsight, that was essentially created by a producer on the outside that saw potential in a jailbait band to sell albums and concert tickets.  Based on the biography of band member Cherie Currie and executive produced by another member, Joan Jett, we see the meeting between the pair and how they, through the assistance of one very eclectic and business savvy producer, became a band that broke barriers.  We also come to see the personal struggles that beset the group, which inevitably led to their fall.  Interestingly, a few of the other bandmates are curious non-entities here (Jackie Fox, in particular, wanted to have nothing to do with the film), but The Runaways, I suppose, hones its focus in on Jett and Currie and shows how the highs and lows of their brief teen-rocking careers affected them both...one for the better and one for the worse. 

It’s early 1975 and fledging guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) really want to try something different: to create an estrogen-fuelled rock band that could achieve mega-stardom.  On one night the pair approaches a famous L.A. manager/agent Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) with their intentions.  Described by Jett at one point as a “Frankenstein Motherfucker,” Fowley makes up for his oftentimes outlandish façade by revealing himself as a shrewd, militantly hardnosed, and Svengali-like manipulator/tutor that could get the girls what they want.  He listens to the girls and decides to assist them, mostly because he sees their offbeat and scuzzy potential as rambunctious and rebellious girls not even close to legal age that could play as hard and as furious as any other men.   His initial tutelage is basic and straightforward: they need to play and act as good as the bad boys do.  “It’s not about woman’s lib,” he lashes out at them at one point, “It’s about woman’s libido!” 

He takes to training the girls as a drill sergeant would to training grunts, which results in the film’s most compelling moments.  Fowley is an unmitigated creep ("You dogs would be lucky to get a gig in the shower, go sell some girl guide cookies," he tells at them early on) and he bellows out advice at the girls with two tempos – loud and louder – but he is not a phony.  He acknowledges that he knows the artificiality of the rock world, but he admires it nonetheless and exists cozily within it and will stop at nothing to give his girls a taste.  This master hustler essentially gives them all ultimatums: either they must be empowered and assault their audiences with a gutsy tenacity, or just give up while they’re ahead.  He does, however, acknowledge that they need a lead singer to round off the group, so he finds her in Cherie Currie (a very grown up Dakota Fanning), who is hired primarily on her appearance (“I like your look," her tells her, “A little Bowie, a little Bardot, and a look that says I could kick the shit out of a truck driver").  Appearances aside, Currie is a somewhat shy and introverted singer, but Fowley soon learns how to push her buttons and tame the beastess within her to allow her to explode with a vocal ferocity.  This culminates with the on-the-spot creation of “Cherry Bomb”, one of the group’s most famous singles and one of the catchiest rock jingles ever. 

Once the group finds their creative legs, Fowley sends them out on the road for a series of low key gigs; it’s important to note that The Runaways were not an overnight success and, in point of fact, they were actually bigger and more popular when they toured in Japan (this is dealt with in the film, which shows the group with an overseas popularity that could aptly be described as Beatles-esque).  Once the group does manage to gain some of the spoils of critical and financial success, it leads to many negative side effects, especially with the 15-year-old Currie, who allows herself to seek solace in a never-ending cycle of booze and pills.  When things get the darkest for her and when she is unable to deal with the pressures involved with the group, she abruptly quits.  Jett, as we all know, became the most successful in her post-Runaways career: she went on to be the first female solo artist to form her own record label, whereas Currie continued to have problems with sobriety.  She is now, of all things, a chainsaw artist in the San Fernando Valley. 

On a positive, THE RUNAWAYS assuredly benefits from a level of authenticity with capturing the look and mood of its times.  Sigsimondi bathes the screen with a grimy and hazy sense of glamorous sleaziness of the world that The Runaways populated and she really fosters an evocation of the period that feels spot on (her direction is flirty, free-wheeling, and loose, which compliments the group’s temperament really well).  Then there is the fantastic music that hardly needs embellishment on my part.  Fanning and Stewart do most of their own singing here, and the results are eerily convincing.  There is rarely a moment in the film when the pair don't feel bona fide on stage.  The film is a triumph as a musical odyssey.

The performances are also resoundingly stellar.  Stewart - an idiosyncratic, but unavoidably decent and naturally attuned actress that has let the TWILIGHT movies somewhat tarnish her integrity and conviction as a performer - is believable as the pouty, sullen, and fearlessly tough talking Jett.  Granted, the actress has an off stage reputation for being equally sullen and pouty, which does not really make her performance feel like that much of a thespian stretch.  The real standouts are Michael Shannon and Dakota Fanning, the latter whom has never reached such dark depths and has been so liberated, tenacious, and rawly sexual in a role.  Fanning has always been an atypically strong performer that exudes a maturity beyond her years, and her portrait here as a vulnerable, but ambitious girl that gained celeb status too young in life and then paid for it is an unqualified knockout (and the way she defiantly snarls out Cherry Bomb’s lyrics makes it impossible to not be transfixed with her gnarly attitude and allure).  Equally transfixing is Michael Shannon, an actor that has such a hauntingly intimidating presence on screen.  Perversely flamboyant, uncannily unhinged, and nuttier than a proverbial fruitcake, Shannon is a trash talking, tantrum raising, and vindictively aggressive mentor figure here.  You don’t know whether to laugh uproariously at him or just to fear him.  That’s a tricky dichotomy for any performer to pull off, and Shannon here, as he did with REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, displays a matchless energy and willingness to do and say anything for the sake of his part. 

Alas, as much as I appreciated the performances and aesthetic look to the film, THE RUNAWAYS’ script felt like it was on damned and cursed rock group autopilot.   Aside from the conventional handling of the material, the screenplay seems to hastily rush to a conclusion and does not provide fitting closure to this group’s legacy; it just simply seems to come to a screeching halt.  The film just feels unfinished.  Outside of Currie (to be fair, this is essentially her story, based on her memoirs), the narrative skims over most of the other Runaways personas.  The bandmates are curious abstractions and are never really given good back-stories that are meaningfully fleshed out.  This is peculiar especially if you consider Jett herself (a producer behind the scenes here): you don't truly gain an appreciation in the film for who she really was and what motivated her.  Her lesbian and/or bisexualism is strangely hinted at more or less as an afterthought and she – much like the rest of the band – seems kind of non-specifically brash and hostile for reasons unspecified.  Because of all of this, THE RUNAWAYS feels disjointed, episodic, and hurried.  Just because the real life girl-powered musicians did everything by the seats of their pants while throwing caution to wind does not mean that a fitting biopic about their lives should have done the same.

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