I know a guy who got Joan Jett to autograph his arm, and he then had a tattoo artist permanently etch it into his skin. I thought this was a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do. After all, who is cooler than Joan Jett? The Runaways, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, chronicles the brief and tempestuous life of Jett's first band, and though Jett's post-Runaways success is the only reason why the band is remembered today, her character floats on the periphery of the action, teasing us while telling a much more conventional story.
The story arc of The Runaways is that of Cherie Currie's. The film was based on her memoir, Neon Angel. And it's certainly true that she provided the drama of the Runaways brief existence, as she lived the standard VH1: Behind the Music template--plucked from obscurity, playing grimy gigs, hitting it big, and then spiralling into a haze of drugs. But all the while Currie's story unspooled, I kept savoring the moments about Jett, and wanted to see more.
Jett is an executive producer of the film, so her input must have been significant. Perhaps that is the reason that all mentions of her home life are absent. We only see her--a sexually ambiguous teenager who worships Suzi Quatro-- taking a guitar lesson and being told that girls don't play electric guitar. In a scene that seems too coated with pixie dust to believe she runs into record producer Kim Fowley at a club and tells him she wants to put together an all-girl band. On the spot he matches her with a girl drummer, and before long they have found Currie, who Fowley sees as a "little bit Bowie, a little bit Bardot" to be the sexy lead singer. Fowley, vividly played by Michael Shannon, is a slimy oddball who sees an opportunity to put together a band of jail-bait (Fowley is now a DJ for satellite radio, and coincidentally his show was on my radio as I drove home from the theater. He seems just as strange now as he was then).
Fowley may be a scumbag, but the girls take his best advice and harness an attitude--he tells them it's not about "women's lib, but women's libido." In another scene that seems to good to be true, he and Jett write the band's only hit, "Cherry Bomb," in about five minutes. They get a record contract and are a smash, but things get strained when Currie is marketed as a sex symbol. We get a variation on the time-worn rock movie line: "It was supposed to be about the music, not about your crotch!"
Though the script has all the cliches I ended up enjoying this film. True, I got bored about halfway through, but eventually I was won over, mostly because I liked being absorbed into the world of the seventies. Sigismondi and her cinematographer, costume designer and art director have created a palpable world, whether it's the grungy clubs, the pathetic trailer park, or the feathered hair and platformed sandals. When Currie, in a moment of inspired futility, participates in her school's talent contest by lip-synching to a Bowie song, I was right there, flashing back. The Runaways is a valentine to rock and roll and its excesses, and anyone who doesn't like or understand rock music would be completely lost.
Finally, I want to mention the two starring performances. Dakota Fanning is Currie, and she's terrific, although I must admit feeling uneasy about this young lady, who has been in films since she was not much more than a toddler, being so sexual. But she takes the cliched character and makes it her own. Kristen Stewart is Jett, and I was thrilled to see her display some of the charisma she'd shown before her superduper-stardom from the Twilight films. I had begun to wonder if Stewart could act at all, but she convinced me here, perfectly capturing Jett's look, sound, and demeanor, even in the way she hunches her shoulders, as if she's always playing guitar, even when she isn't carrying one.