I love rock n' roll.
In the 1970's, rock n' roll was still considered a man's world.
Enter Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox - an all-girl band unlike anything rock music had ever seen. The Runaways opened the door for countless bands and solo artists, including Jett and Ford themselves, and rock n' roll wasn't just a boys' club anymore.
Based upon a book by Currie, the band's former lead singer, The Runaways follows the bands meteoric rise beginning in 1975 under the svengali-like leadership of music promoter and manager Kim Fowley until the band essentially imploded in 1979, a result of growing friction between Jett and Currie and Currie's own desire to quit touring.
Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways skims the surface of the story of The Runaways but does so with such energy and passion that it's easy to forgive the film for giving audiences more style than substance.
Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is the band's rock n' roll heart, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) its jailbait beauty with Bardot looks and a sultry sound. The others in the band? They're mostly an afterthought here, even Lita Ford, a 16-year-old guitarist when she joined the band who would later experience her own 15-minutes of rock n' roll fame as a solo artist.
If there's a fault in The Runaways, and there is, it's that we don't really ever get to know the band beyond their broadly sketched caricatures. Only with Currie, upon whose writings the film is based, does it seem like The Runaways really gets into who she really is and how she transformed from a sweet, vulnerable young girl to the hypersexualized lead singer of what would become one of rock music's biggest bands during the late 1970's. Jett, on the other hand, is arguably the most intriguing character in the film yet gets barely a second thought in terms of motivation and the forces that turned rock n' roll into her life. While Jett is one of the film's producers and certainly shares the spotlight here with Currie, her character feels more like a rock n' roll icon than a living, breathing heart of rock n' roll.
While the substance may be a touch lacking in The Runaways, the style very nearly compensates for it largely based upon the strength of the film's trio of leading performances from Stewart, Fanning and Michael Shannon's mesmerizing turn as the ambitious, controlling Kim Fowley.
At first glance, Stewart's turn as rocker Joan Jett doesn't seem like much of a stretch. After all, the two dark-haired and driven beauties with intense personas and primal growls that practically scream out from deep within. Yet, Stewart takes Jett even further despite not having much of a story serving as foundation. I challenge you to watch an old video of Joan Jett, even her anthemic "I Love Rock n' Roll," and then watch Stewart's performance of Jett.
Stunning. Hypnotic. On the money.
While Dakota Fanning is certainly nowhere near the singer that Cherie Currie was, her portrayal still permeates Currie's blend of innocence and sexuality, passion and insecure vulnerability. Many actresses would have turned Currie into not much more than a young, nubile sexpot. Fanning, instead, finds a rich humanity underneath Currie's transformation from confused, innocent teen to international rock star whose sexuality is placed in the forefront by the questionably motivated Fowley. It wouldn't be a stretch to believe that it was this kind of performance that Fanning was hoping for when she originally agreed to appear in the horribly ill-conceived "Hound Dog" as a rape victim. While there's no such victimization here, Fanning's Currie is a young woman struggling to maintain a sense of self and discovering that, unlike Jett, rock n' roll is not her life.
Writer/director Sigismondi pays less attention to the other members of the band. Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) has only a few non-essential lines, Sandy West (Stella Maeve) is really only essential to one scene early on and Robin, a "symbolic" character representing Jackie Fox (Alia Shawkat), is mostly in the background. The only other character who matters at all in The Runaways, with the possible exception of Cherie's sister Marie (Riley Keough), is that of Kim Fowley (Shannon), a man whose crass and often vulgar vision for this all-girl band would lead to far more serious accusations than are ever addressed in the film. Here, Shannon portrays Fowley as a sort of paternal guru with an evil sneer about himself.
Benoit Debie's camera work gives The Runaways a rather worn out, gritty feel that fits the 1970's era of rock n' roll quite nicely, especially given that as a band The Runaways played for and with the likes of The Ramones, Cheap Trick and other non-glossy rock bands from that era. While some scenes don't necessarily make sense, for example a lingering kiss between Currie and Jett that is never really explained, the camera work vividly paints a portrait of rock n' roll excess weaving its way through throbbing, hardcore feminine energy.
The film's music, especially for fans of 1970's era rock and The Runaways, is stellar throughout and Fanning does her own singing that is sort of a slightly more subtle, less growly version of Currie's musical vibe.
Despite its flaws or, perhaps, because of them, The Runaways is less about story and more about the heartbeat of rock n' roll and how it was forever changed by an all-girl band with Bardot looks and rock n' roll dreams.
The heart of rock n' roll?
Nah, The Runaways is all balls.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic