One problem for critics and aficionados when films open in the major media markets weeks before they do here in the Midwest is that one is apt to see a lot of reviews before they have a chance to see the film. Thus far, I've seen lukewarms, out-and-out pans and only a couple of raves for The Runaways — Floria Sigismondi's stylized biopic of what was, for all practical purposes, the first all-girl rock 'n' roll band ... at least the first that mattered. So talk about going into a screening with preconceived notions! But as both rock 'n' roll and cinema, The Runaways really isn't bad. Not at all.
A large part of the movie's pre-release criticism suggested that Sigismondi should've used unknowns for her film's two main roles rather than famous current teen queens, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. This writer heard initial reports (from someone who would know) that Sigismondi's screenplay was more The Hills or Beverly Hills 90210 than it was "punk rock" — which also seemed to justify those criticisms. And the notion of Twilight's Bella Swan as Joan Jett certainly may sound sacrilegious in concept and on paper. Stewart has seemed like a one-emotion actress thus far, even in the pretty good Adventureland.
But Joan Jett's public persona has never exactly been multi-emotional — and it turns out that Stewart is actually really good at capturing Jett's icy, tough-but-cool girl swagger, adding the needed touches of vulnerability that transform it into a pretty terrific performance. I've seen at least two "female Brando" comparisons, and while that may be hyperbole, it's also not ridiculous. Besides, how can one not admire a character whose early stated purpose is to merge Suzi Quatro with Chuck Berry ... and who mentions Elvis within her first few moments onscreen? Yep. Stewart is a genuine rock star here.
Even though she's only 16, the same age as the character she portrays, one could consider lead singer Cherie Currie as Fanning's debut "adult" role; the movie even opens with Currie getting her first period, the menstrual blood running down her leg (lots of bodily fluids in this movie, by the way, which may or may not be "symbolic" and a "metaphor" for something). For many tastes, Fanning's been too precocious as a child star. But while she's somewhat softer and perhaps cuter than the actual Currie was, Fanning is also real good here, making an audience actually care about parts of a story that originated in Neon Angel, Currie's 1989 autobiography and the basis for this film — a book that, in its original pre-updated form, was, quite frankly, pretty awful.
The aforementioned Suzi Quatro (a Detroit gal), the band Fanny (which included yet another Quatro from Detroit — Suzi's older sister, Patti), and a few other self-contained female rock groups preceded the Runaways, of course. But the latter was the one that registered with pop history, which is what's really important, even if the film has already made the group more well known to the mainstream than they were in their own time (even if they did once headline the Royal Oak Music Theatre, with both Cheap Trick and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — ! — opening for them).
The Runaways were also the first to come on as tough, oversexed vixens — albeit oversexed vixens who could actually play — much of that image the brainchild of concept Svengali Kim Fowley (portrayed by the scenery-chewing Michael Shannon). But from the Go-Go's, the Bangles, the Pandoras and the Teenage Love Dolls straight through the whole riot grrl thing and right up to the Donnas and beyond, the Runaways will always be right near the top of any list of influences for all those bands, even if the group wasn't really all that fantastic from a purely musical standpoint. They've also become great fodder for cultural philosophers regarding the dichotomy between overt sexuality and feminism that's been an issue — even frequently a battle — in "girl rock," spanning from Deborah Harry to Bikini Kill.
That dichotomy is certainly a central theme in Sigismondi's film — it's even suggested that's what ultimately broke up the original lineup of the Runaways. And whether intentional but probably not, it's interesting for someone who was pretty close to the real Runaways' ages during their moment of fame to now watch a documentation of that time in retrospect. What once may have been the subject of masturbatory fantasies now just sometimes seems creepily observed as an adult, bearing in mind that it was the '70s ... and things that happened in the '70s would strike a lot of today's right-wingers, even given our so-called relaxed modern standards, as downright Sodom and Gomorrah-ish.
Which isn't to say The Runaways is a deep film. But then, those aforementioned cultural philosophers aside, this was hardly a deep story. Still, even as a pure teen flick in pop cultural terms, this certainly works better than something like the dreadful film version of Grease did. And as rock history, there's actually a lot Sigismondi gets right (or at least better than many such films do), which we appreciate — even if it's something as simple as getting the RCA logo correct on the David Bowie album when Currie lip-synchs to her favorite rock star's "Lady Grinning Soul" at a school talent show. The scenes at Rodney's English Disco are pretty spot-on as well (even if things have been condensed for convenience), right down to the two perfect portrayals of Rodney Bingenheimer by Keir O'Donnell, first as the glam teen club's proprietor and then later as an older DJ interviewing the now world-famous Jett on his KROQ radio show.
And there are little touches throughout that will satisfy trivia buffs who know the group's story inside and out. Such as Cherie's complicated relationship with twin sister, Marie, who's played by granddaughter of Elvis — yeah, that Elvis — Riley Keogh. The director throws in two other pop cultural winks by casting Tatum O'Neal as Currie's mom and, as Jett's first, totally uncool guitar instructor, Robert Romanus. (Romanus played Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High but, more importantly, co-starred in Currie's 1980 bid for movie stardom, alongside Jodie Foster, in the teenage, San Fernando Valley-set, sex 'n' drugs saga, Foxes.)
Sigismondi also suggests drummer Sandy West's budding lesbianism (and Jett's bisexuality) in a scene in which West (Stella Maeve), being instructed in the art of masturbation, only gets off when she — at Jett's suggestion —thinks of Farah Fawcett, not some hot boy.
And speaking of bisexuality, the much-publicized kiss between Fanning/Currie and Stewart/Jett is only shocking in how natural it seems; again, it was the '70s ... (It should be noted that West and guitarist Lita Ford are, at best, minor characters in this treatment, while bassist Jackie Fox is totally replaced by a faceless bassist named "Robin" — but, hey, The Buddy Holly Story did far worse by the Crickets.)
The movie begins to lose steam after the girls hit Japan — where they're treated like the Beatles — and things start to fall apart. It's ironic that when Sigismondi's screenplay finally has a chance to really explore the inner lives and personal turmoil of her two main characters, the film becomes somewhat tedious, although it picks up at the end once Jett has become a rock superstar, ultimately fulfilling the band's promise and proving they were more than just sex tarts.
Much has been made of Michael Shannon stealing the film as Fowley, and while he's very good (and certainly better than a joke made by someone who'd read the original script, suggesting they were afraid Carrot Top might get the Fowley role!), he's not as flamboyant and complicated — certainly not as often hilarious — as the real Kim Fowley happens to be. My opinion's probably not fair to the actor; I've known Fowley well since 1986. But the characterization is fairly one-dimensional, even if Shannon certainly looks like a young Fowley, one of the more interesting Zelig-like figures in rock history (for my money, they focused on the wrong guy when they made that Bingenheimer documentary, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, a few years ago).
But if the film has a "villain," Fowley's probably it (which is weird because the real "villain" was road manager Scottie Anderson — portrayed here as "Scottie" — and the script neglects to mention that he's the one who got the younger Currie pregnant on the road, according to Currie's book).
Still, The Runaways doesn't portray Fowley as badly or as unsympathetically as rock "history" has (unfairly) at times over the years. In other words, it could've been worse, especially with Carrot Top in the role! Make no mistake about it, though — Stewart and Fanning are the runaway stars here.
In the end, viewers may wonder what the point is — or if there is a point — to The Runaways. But if it makes a rock 'n' roll fan reminisce, or leads some 16-year-old girl to start her own band, well, that's probably enough.
Opens Friday, April 9.
by Don Waller
A first-person remembrance of the Runways and those Dee-troit connections
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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