Saturday night we watched The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi’s chronicle of the 70s teenage rock group. The Runaways may seem an unusual subject for a biopic given their relatively short career, and in fact the movie only focuses on a portion of that, choosing to follow the band from their inception up to Cherie Currie’s departure in 1977. However, I think this benefits the film. We get to see events unfold in more depth and detail than is possible in movies where the artists’ careers span decades.
At its heart, the movie is the story of Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), the uncompromising guitarist with the goal of creating an all-girl band, and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), the fifteen year-old Bowie fan plucked from obscurity to be the band’s lead singer. Their relationship – bonding over the music, experimenting with various recreational drugs, and exploring their infatuation with each other – provides the narrative arc. Currie, aided by Jett (and impresario Kim Fowley), becomes an assured and charismatic frontwoman, but is undone by drug abuse and the pressures of the road. Careerist Jett rises from the ashes of the band to forge a successful solo career, and eventually dates Carmen Electra (well done Joan.)
I love movies that explore band dynamics, mainly because I spent the better part of the 90s in a succession of little-known rock bands. Despite the fact that we never played Budokan or Cobo Hall, we still had infighting and petty jealousies to rival the Beatles or Stones. The Runaways documents the band’s inner turmoil in several scenes, most notably in an explosive recording session, but I particularly liked a brief scene where Jett, Currie, and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) sit in the backseat of a car, silently seething.
A few words on the leads: Stewart IS Joan Jett in this movie, plain and simple. She is amazing. Never once did I see Kristen Stewart on that screen. She had all the mannerisms down – the dropped shoulder, the hunched over guitar stance, all of them. I know she hung out with Jett quite a bit to prepare for the role and it shows. She gets a pass from me for all the Twilight films for her work here.
Fanning is terrific as well. She does an excellent job portraying both the toughness and vulnerability of her character. Lindsay Lohan could take some notes: she clearly has control of her career and understands how to move from being a well-known child star into more adult, edgy roles.
Naturally, the soundtrack is excellent, including many Runaways classics (including my fave, “School Days”) as well as great selections by Bowie, Suzi Quatro, Gary Glitter, and the Sex Pistols. It must be noted that Stewart and Fanning do their vocals on many of the songs, and it was impossible for me, as a casual fan, to tell the difference between their versions and the originals. Watch it with the volume turned up, particularly if you have surround sound. Ever wondered what it would sound like if the Runaways played a gig in your basement? Well, now I know. (It fucking rocked!)
Sigismondi’s direction is confident and assured, and the cast and crew nail the 70s feel. It would have been nice had Lita Ford (who later had her own successful solo career) been given a larger role, instead of being relegated to band malcontent. But that’s a minor critique. Bottom line: The Runaways is a rock and roll party you don’t want to miss. If you love rock and roll, you will love this movie.
Here’s a clip of the girls performing “Cherry Bomb” on Japanese TV (this performance was recreated in the movie):