The Runaways’ place in rock history is slight at best. They occupy a buried patch between feminal compatriots Patti Smith and the Go-Go’s and a marginalized LA punk scene dominated by The Germs and X. A critical analysis of the group would probably overlook even the tabloid-worthy saga of The Runaways’ history, in which five underage girls are thrust into the male-dominated rock culture of 1975. But Hollywood, as always, makes the dirt float. First-time feature director Floria Sigismondi is given the impossible task of translating a cliché-riddled narrative into respectable ticket-selling entertainment with some sort of fan-approved accuracy. Toss in two high-profile young starlets and you create sky-high expectations. Although far from perfect, The Runaways delivers some of its own “dead-end justice” by cashing in on Sigismondi’s music video flair and on convincing performances from Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, who are able to transcend their tweeny Twilight ways.
The Runaways opens with a drop of menstrual blood hitting the pavement. This, the result of Cherie Currie’s blossoming womanhood, is the film’s visceral howl of defiance. Unlike Zack Snyder’s epitomization of violence in Watchmen — one drop of glossy red on a smiley face badge — Sigismondi offers a far more personal invocation of unchecked bloodletting. As Currie procures her period, so Joan Jett procures a leather jacket. This embryonic portrait of two awkward teenagers quickly (and somewhat heavy-handedly) transforms into one of the rock stars in the fast lane. Jett’s ambitions are the catalyst; she approaches well-known LA producer Kim Fowley and tells him, “I play electric guitar.” You can see the Svengali gears turning as Fowley ropes in a drummer, guitar player, and bass player with promises that the band will be bigger than The Beatles. The real-life Fowley saw the appeal of a heavy-hitting all-girl rock band, but he also understood the need for a sex kitten front-woman — in his own words, a Brigitte Bardot or, in this case, fifteen-year-old Cherie Currie. And so The Runaways were born. The film shows us how they gained moderate success, indulged in various substances and sex, emoted the problems of teenage rock stars, and eventually crashed and burned with the inevitable promise of rebirth and recovery.
The script is as pat as an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, but Sigismondi turns it into something far more appealing despite narrative stops and starts. Resisting the temptation to go overboard in representing the era, the production design is a perfect balance of West Coast fashion and grit of the day. The music is a visual rallying cry; you see and hear both director and actors at their best. Stewart unequivocally becomes the slouchy Jett, and Fanning morphs into the brash Currie, as do Stella Maeve and Scout Taylor-Compton into Sandy West and Lita Ford, respectively. Unfortunately, stilted scenes that are designed to propel or expound on the story end up deflating moments of musical elation. A sequence in which Currie auditions for the band and inspires the writing of “Cherry Bomb” — on the spot — seems bogus despite its factual bearing. Although instrumental in the so-called character development of the band, the portrayal of this event is flat and lifeless. So too is Currie’s ultimate departure when she tells Jett “I can’t do this anymore; I want my life back.” Jett’s unsurprising reply is almost too predictable: “This is my life.” The band’s epoch is the film’s dramatic missed opportunity.
Both Currie (through her titillating autobiography) and Jett (on staff as executive producer) were involved in the production from the beginning, working closely with the director and actors. The other band members fade into the background, giving room for Michael Shannon, master of crazy, to bring the maniacal Kim Fowley to vivid life. His desire to exploit the young women from just about every angle, and to verbally and physically pummel them into punk rock goddesses, is the film’s morality play. During a practice session in a broken-down trailer, Fowley screams, “This isn’t about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido!” Fortunately, Sigismondi finds some parity in The Runaway’s story between burgeoning libido and eventual liberation. This sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll biopic plays out as one might expect, but there is also a tasteful amount of restraint, which sees the filmmakers leaving out the most sensational bits of history, including rape, pregnancy, attempted suicide, and enough internal strife between band members to create a soap opera that would give The L Word a run for its money. Jett, a tireless rocker even today, has always urged people to appreciate the music, not the rumors, and, for better or worse, The Runaways does just that. Following a general trend in band bio-dramas such as Control and What We Do is Secret, the dramatic interpretations of the music upstage the formal scripting of a well-documented and recent past. Sitting in a movie theater and watching The Runaways perform, via Stewart and Fanning, may be the most perfect form of self-indulgent time travel ever experienced.