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FILM: The Runaways

Written by Marcus Campbell on July 27, 2010

“If you wanna be an artist, you can cut off your ear and send it to your boyfriend. If you want to be a rock star, you listen to me!” yells a music producer to a gang of under-age girls who want to rock like the boys.

You can be forgiven for not having heard of 1970’s all-girl rock band The Runaways, although most Twilight fanatics would have heard of this intriguing biopic about the rise and fall of the short-lived band. The ever-morose Kristen Stewart stars as guitarist and songwriter Joan Jett, and young Dakota Fanning shines as out of control front woman Cherie Currie. Needless to say – both feature in Twilight films. The real deal only released 2 records with their original line up that included Jett and Currie and while they burnt out almost as fast as the Sex Pistols did, their legacy in rock and roll unfortunately didn’t outlast the decade.

As the film is largely adapted from the memoir ‘Neon Angel’ by Cherie Currie, it focuses a little too heavily on the singer’s home life and her experience as an adolescent girl who was thrown into rock-and-roll long before she was ready. Overlooked by her alcoholic father and pompous mother, at just 15 she idolises David Bowie and develops an outsider attitude with the help of her older sister. Joan Jett‘s story however, leaves out the home life to focus on the music. She is introduced buying up on black leather so she can channel Suzi Quatro-as a “wild one”.

But it isn’t until they are thrown together by ultra-eccentric music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon steals the show here) that the different characters become explosive. Joan Jett wants to be the epitome of rock, snarling her way through power cords and shrugging off the boys when they get too close. Currie auditions for the band with ‘Fever’ by Peggy Lee and has to be painstakingly (and hilariously) taught how to rock by Fowley. At one point he yells “Cherie’s lack of greatness, her lack of rock and roll authority is getting in the way of this band’s product… (which is) SEX, VIOLENCE and REVOLT!”

All the manipulative marketing tools at Fowley’s disposal are laid out for the viewer and make for a few cringes and moments that keep the narrative above the mundane. What is great is that even with Joan Jett as a producer of the film, the story doesn’t shy away from the fact that Fowley created the band. He wrote or co-wrote most of the songs and callously mentored the girls in all things rock and roll, something that acts to threaten the legitimacy of their legacy. His influence probably caused their ruin into drugs and division, a nice interview scene at the end acts as a kind of confessional for his bizarre perspective to come out.

Floria Sigismondi’s visual style, learnt through a career in visual arts and directing music videos for the likes of Marilyn Manson, David Bowie and The Cure, helps to make the rock-and-roll dirtiness of mid-seventies LA as genuine as it is exciting. Every setting is made to seem claustrophobic and choked, from the dingy club that Joan and Cherie frequent (that seems to play nothing but The Stooges and Bowie) to the cramped caravan the girls practice in as well as the countless hotel rooms that all look alike. Apart from the focus this gives on the characters, it creates a world that seems alien to most people and a dark visionary take on a band that seemed doomed from the beginning.

But where the film gets lost is in the relationships. The obvious heart of the film is the pressure cooker partnership of Jett and Currie, with all the stresses of their broken home lives, their newfound liberation and empowerment and different capacities to handle the drugs. Ultimately they turn to each other to deal, with some rushed mtv-style love scenes to the sounds of The Stooges ‘I wanna be your dog’, basically the beginning and end of it. When they make their final choices and the film ends, you can’t help but wonder why this film was really made?

The look and style is there and the soundtrack is amazing, sure. There’s plenty of comic relief and some very cool individual scenes, the young actors kill their performances and even sing spot on. But a little character development would go a very long way here. The recent John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy suffered the same problem; it just wasn’t all that profound to the average viewer to warrant a film. Do they think they are fooling us by having Kristen Steward skulk around in her underwear finding the chords for ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’? Joan Jett covered The Arrows for that one. Let’s hear about her childhood and why she loves rock and roll so bad!

For all its faults though, The Runaways isn’t just a money-making endeavour via the cross promotion of young, hyped Twilight talent like many will suspect.  Maybe the disjointed story of these girls, along with the crazy world it drags you through is motivation enough for most people.

You’ll love this if: You’re all about the fem-rock or you don’t mind sacrificing story for a great soundtrack behind some cool 70’s rock nostalgia.

You’ll hate this if: You imagine it will be as good as Ray or Walk the Line.

The Runaways will be showing in wide release from 15th July

The Runaways
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Staring Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon

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