The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 film about the seminal all-girl rock band, is not a documentary. That role, to some extent, has already been filled: Former Runaway Vicki Tischler-Blue made Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways in 2004, even though Joan Jett declined to participate and refused to allow any original music from the band to be used.
Despite the fact that Joan Jett was an executive producer on The Runaways, do not watch it expecting a history lesson. Because the movie, although based on member Cherie Currie’s bio Neon Angel, is partly fact and partly fiction, but all fantasy: sex, drugs, more drugs, rock & roll, heartbreak, and dreaming.
Yes, the time period (1975 and beyond) dictates the fashion, but the sky blue eye shadow, leather pants, glitter, guitars, and sequins are more than an appeal to nostalgia addicts; they are the stuff of which these particular dreams are made. One cannot help but feel a rush of excitement and perhaps embarrassment at such raw desire and ambition. The goal of “making it,” making something–anything–seems unattainable when it’s just you: Singing a capella Suzi Quatro songs in an empty lot, or imagining yourself as David Bowie while high school kids throw trash at you.
It’s not just the glam rock and the gender-bending, it’s that I couldn’t help but hear the voice of Mandy Slade from Todd Haynes’ 1998 ode to rock & roll dreams, Velvet Goldmine: “I needn’t mention how essential dreaming is to the character of the rock star.” Could The Runaways be the first truly post-Velvet Goldmine rock & roll movie?
With the blessing of Joan Jett, of course, Sigismondi was free to explore her role in this story, and as one would expect, she comes out at the end mostly unscathed and in fact, successful after the release of her first album and first single “I Love Rock & Roll.” Others, like Lita Ford, are not so lucky; her refusal to participate ensures her role is limited. Sandy West gets slightly more screen time, but Jackie Fox, who—like Lita—refused to participate, is replaced by some fictional “Robin” character. One could sneer that the movie could have been subtitled: The Joan Jett and Cherie Currie Story.
But from the first moment we see Joan Jett–remarkably portrayed by Kristen Stewart–we almost don’t care. Even her awkwardness when loitering in the men’s section of the clothing store (shades of Arthur Stewart in Velvet Goldmine buying a Brian Slade album and being called a “poof”) is charming. No amount of executive production can create sexual magnetism out of thin air; there is a reason she has been an icon for more than 30 years.
Kristen-as-Joan is mysterious, smoldering, tough, determined, and completely mesmerizing. Then there’s that whole “is she or isn’t she?” question that’s been dogging her for so long. Much has been made of the make-out scene between Joan and Cherie (Dakota Fanning) and with good reason. Like the Curt Wild and Brian Slade kissing scene in Velvet Goldmine, this is not meant to titillate men’s lesbian fantasies. In truth, it’s the kissing that’s more erotic than the implied sex.
As Cherie, Dakota Fanning has the look down (most times she looks eerily similar to my high school friend Darnell), but only being exposed to Cherie post-Runaways, her shy sadness seems somewhat incongruous, though likely accurate. She also fulfills part of the Arthur Stewart fanboy/girl role as she cuts her hair with David Bowie albums spread on the floor. Her lip-synced performance of “Lady Grinning Soul” is uncomfortable to watch; yet one is unable to look away.
Wisely, Sigismondi cast an actual teenager as Currie, only 15 when she was approached to be in The Runaways. Likewise, Stewart was only a shade older than Jett was in 1975. Perhaps the most difficult, and in some ways significant, casting was for the role of sleazy svengali Kim Fowley. Anyone who isn’t familiar with The Runaways’ history likely doesn’t know who the hell Fowley is and will probably find his antics disgusting (though frequently hilarious). But if they read his interview from the L.A. Times about the movie, they’ll quickly realize that Michael Shannon’s performance was, if anything, understated.
Here Fowley, true to his larger than life personality, plays a role filled by three characters in Velvet Goldmine: Jack Fairy (powerful), Mandy Slade (self-aggrandizing), and Jerry Devine (ruthless). Regarding Edgeplay, in which Kim Fowley-as-himself does appear, an Amazon reviewer named John Noodles remarks, “Unlike other reviewers, I don’t see Kim Fowley as quite the abusive sleazebag they did” and then goes on to paint the band members as sluts, saying “they had sex—with each other, with one of their managers, with who-knows-who else,” which is typical, male-privileged bullshit, and just a taste of what band members actually endured during their short time together not to mention their post-Runaways careers. (For what it’s worth, I have met Fowley, several times, and I’d believe he was capable of anything. And now I’ll stop talking about him because, like I said, he is capable of anything, and I’ve dealt with him enough for one lifetime.)
Despite some flaws, The Runaways is essential viewing. It’s a visual and aural feast, featuring music by Suzi Quatro, The Stooges, plus lots of original Runaways songs, including several performed by the cast themselves. This might seem to be a questionable choice, as Fanning doesn’t have the vocal chops Currie did back then, but it adds a level of credibility and believability to the movie.
Viewers might find some of the costumes, the acting, and the scenarios to be a bit exaggerated, but that’s precisely the point. These girls were teenagers when they started out and as such, convey all the posturing and poor decision-making of real teenagers, not to mention teenage rock stars.
Like Edgeplay, The Runaways shows the highs and the lows, but unlike Edgeplay, one doesn’t feel despondent at the end. No, The Runaways succeeds much like Velvet Goldmine does: Recreating, reinventing, and reinvigorating the sex, drugs, and rock & roll mythos for a new generation of girls, boys, and every gender in between.