Monday, August 02, 2010

Movie Review: The Runaways

The Runaways
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Running Time: 106 minutes
Originally Released: January 24, 2010 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

“Girls don’t play electric guitar.” That’s what everybody tells Joan Larkin, including her guitar instructor, who’s all too happy to teach Joan “On Top of Old Smoky” but looks disgusted when she asks to learn “Smoke on the Water.” Good thing for Joan, she doesn’t play by the rules. Nor does she play by her own name. At the age of 17, even before joining a band, Joan is introducing herself by her rock n’ roll stage name—Joan Jett.

The Runaways tells the true story of the rise and fall of the 1970s rock band of the same name. As the film demonstrates, it was a brief and volatile flight, taking off in late 1975 and crash landing early in 1979. The band got its start when Joan (played here by Kristen Stewart) approached record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) at a nightclub and proposed the idea of an all-girl rock band. At the time, the idea was revolutionary enough to gain the attention of Fowley, who loved making money off the exploits of controversial rock music. Fowley introduced Joan to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), eventually lined up other girls (including lead guitarist Lita Ford, played by Scout Taylor-Compton), and completed the band when he discovered 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), a wannabe singer who is one part Bridget Bardot, one part David Bowie. Taking the girls under his maniacal wings, Fowley pushed the teenagers’ rebelliousness to the limits, encouraging them to think about music with a part of their bodies that females don’t even have. “This ain’t women’s lib, this is women’s libido!” he tells them. Fowley seems equally committed to both parts of that message, and it’s one he never lets the girls forget as he manages the band with a deranged and subversive savvy.

If The Runaways is meant as a tribute to the band it portrays, it fails miserably. Nothing about the group’s experiences looks remotely desirable, even as The Runaways rise to fame both in the United States and abroad. Instead, the film is harsh and brutal, particularly with the vulgar and verbally abusive Fowley at its center. But as gritty a movie as it is, it is wholly compelling. I like movies that let the events taking place onscreen speak for themselves. The Runaways is neither preachy, nor celebratory in its depiction of teenage girls suddenly becoming rock goddesses and treading the familiar road of drugs and alcohol, much to their collective detriment. Amplifying the film are exceptionally good performances from the lead members of the cast. Those who think Stewart is limited to the dark and dour will not be proven wrong here, but for the first time that I’ve seen, she breathes life into her character. In a word, Stewart’s performance is impeccable. Shannon is equally impressive as the repugnant Fowley, king of derogatory motivational speeches. And, in a role unlike any she’s played before, Fanning is just a notch below Stewart and Shannon, hindered in part by a script that leaves her character forever elusive. (A strange result, given that the film is based on Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story.)

The Runaways plays like a good hard-rock song, fast and furious. But, as rock n’ roll is wont to do, sometimes it moves along too quickly. Therein lies the film’s greatest weakness, telling the story of five girls’ angst-ridden ascent to seedy rock n’ roll stardom in all too breezy a fashion. Many significant aspects of the band’s history are completely glossed over or given only superficial treatment. Aside from Joan and Cherie, the rest of the band seem to materialize and disappear as if by magic, with the possible exception of Sandy West, who receives peripheral attention throughout. Likewise, the girls’ confidence, record contracts, and fame also seem to appear out of nowhere, with little buildup or paying of dues on the band’s part. It is difficult to believe these pivotal moments in the band’s history would not be some of the most engaging, and so it is sad that they are all but left out. Perhaps the film merely aims to echo the sentiments expressed by the initial members of The Runaways when Cherie announced she would audition for the band by singing the Peggy Lee song, “Fever.” “We don’t play slow songs!” the group chided her. Similarly, maybe the makers of The Runaways just don’t tell slow stories. In the end, then, The Runaways is a powerful film, but one wishes there were more of the music, more of the creative process, more of the friendship developing between Joan and Cherie, more of the other band members—more of everything, really.

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