For the first 45 minutes of The Runaways I was reminded why I loved rock n’ roll so much. The film has an energy, a danger and a fierceness that perfectly captures the hormonal clusterfuck of being a teenager. And then it turns into yet another anti-drug PSA, an Afterschool Special with more underwear shots than normal. Just for once can’t we have a movie that looks at rock stars doing drugs and says, ‘In the long run all these drugs were worth it because the music was completely fucking awesome’?
The fact that The Runaways – the first real all-girl rock and roll band – aren’t that well-known today should give the movie about their career some leeway to avoid all the irritating music biopic tropes. There are fewer seminal moments that have to be quickly addressed, fewer hit songs whose creations have to be accounted for, a less dramatic and well-known end of the band to focus on. But writer/director Floria Sigismondi, after an intriguing start to the picture, eventually defaults to standard cliches and reheated scenes. There’s even a moment where the band rises up against lead singer Cherie Currie when a magazine focuses on her and not them; it was like watching Stillwater argue over Russell Hammond being front and center on the band t-shirts. Someone shouldn’t have slipped Sigismondi a copy of Almost Famous.
There’s a lot that’s fascinating about The Runaways; more or less contemporaries of The Sex Pistols, the band represents the female side of mid to late 70s manufactured rebellion. There’s an argument to be made that these bands destroyed rock with their fakeness while rebirthing it with their passion. This movie makes no such argument, and only briefly touches on The Sex Pistols. Or any other band, really. Going back to Almost Famous one thing that’s missing from The Runaways is a Riot House sequence, a moment where we get to understand the band in the context of the times. Many would say that The Runaways were part of the final wave of proto-punk bands, but according to this movie they more or less existed in a bubble, a complete vacuum consisting of only Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and manager Kim Fowley, with a couple of other girls hanging out in the background. There’s some merit to the idea of focusing the film on the Currie/Jett relationship (the film ends when Currie leaves the band, despite The Runaways going on without her for a while), but in doing so it’s left the band adrift without much context. Most of the context in the film comes from the remarkable art design and costumes; The Runaways nails 1975 dead center. And the actresses making up the movie version of The Runaways give convincing period look, something that’s surprisingly rare.
If there’s anything that makes the second half of the film tolerable it’s the actresses. Kristen Stewart doesn’t truly step up, playing Joan Jett with her usual stoned fuzziness, but Dakota Fanning brings the goods, and in a big way. The young actress is just about incredible as Cherie Currie, the original singer of the group. Casting Fanning was a canny decision, and not just for her continually growing acting chops – the sexualization of these young girls was a big part of the appeal of The Runaways, and sexualizing Dakota Fanning is a real shortcut into the sleazy heart of the matter. We’ve seen this girl grow up and now we’re seeing her prance around in panties, snort coke, and make out with (and offscreen fuck) Kristen Stewart. When the real Cherie Currie was a 16 year old rock star she sprang up fully formed in the public consciousness, but we’ve known Fanning since she was almost a toddler and it gives us a very different perspective on the situation; the casting cannily critiques the sexualization of teens by… sexualizing a teen.
Michael Shannon is the other great standout performer (I wish I could say more about Scout Taylor-Compton or Alia Shawkat, but they have almost literally nothing to do in the film). He’s Kim Fowley, the band’s manager/Svengali, although this version of Fowley has been greatly cleaned up. He’s portrayed as a mostly charming eccentric as opposed to the statutory rapist he’s been accused of being; since Fowley’s cooperation was needed to make the movie the whitewashing was inevitable. But stepping away from that, Shannon is excellent as the lumbering mastermind of the group, all bizarre affect and smarm.
There was never a question that The Runaways would be rated R, so the question is why does the R feel so soft? The film seems to have undergone edge removal, perhaps because of the addition of Twilight darlings KStew and Dakota Fanning. In the opening scene we meet Cherie’s sister’s creepy older boyfriend; in real life she lost her virginity to him when he raped her, but the movie simply has him being skeevy. Why cut that aspect out, except to make the movie more palatable for the tweens and their parental escorts? Currie herself has called that rape a pivotal moment in her life, saying that dressing up as David Bowie and trying to be a rock star was her way of escaping from the psychic pain of the rape. The entire film seems slightly sanitized, made much safer for mainstream consumption. The danger I loved in the first half evaporates.
The Runaways is a curious beast. There’s more then enough evidence that Sigismondi could have made a movie worthy of her subject, and occasionally she reaches the sleazy depths needed to capture this weird but influential moment in rock history. But in the end the safest path is taken, the least interesting decisions are made. The soundtrack is incredible, but the power of the music easily drowns out the filmmaking.
7 out of 10