The mid 1970s was a time of tight pants and even tighter radio playlists. The Runaways tells the true story of hard rock’s pioneer all-girl band, whose butch-meets-femme iconography had more impact than their invigoratingly raw music. Fans of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Suzi Quatro, the Runaways prefigured punk’s DIY attitude, and they collapsed the distance between artist and audience in a way that said, “If we can do it, you can too.” Although they never hit the big time in the US, they influenced generations of female musicians.
Their saga, which includes drug addiction and exploitation by their elders, was told in the bleak 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways, by former member Victory Tischler-Blue. (Guitarist Joan Jett, an executive producer of the new movie, didn’t participate in that one.) With a screenplay based on singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, Floria Sigismondi’s mixed-bag debut feature, though offering nightmarish sequences in which the teens are clearly in over their heads, merely skims the surface.
The Runaways were born amid the loopy decadence of LA’s Sunset Strip scene and shaped by the skewed proclivities of producer Kim Fowley. High-schooler Joan Marie Larkin (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), who wears her black leather jacket and her “Jett” pseudonym as badges of honor, summons the courage to tell Fowley (Michael Shannon) she wants to start an all-girl band. Fowley digs her audacity, and he pairs her with drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Fowley and Jett find their trailer-park Brigitte Bardot, 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), in Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. Currie is an outsider too, drawing catcalls when she lip-synchs to Bowie in Aladdin Sane make-up in the school talent contest.
Shannon’s Fowley is a marvelously profane version of James Cagney in Footlight Parade as he attempts to mold the Runaways into the ideal jack-off rock-and-roll experience. He excoriates the girls as “dogs” who need to “think like men . . . with your cocks.” He and Jett brainstorm the lyrics to the classic “Cherry Bomb.” Once his PR effort takes off, he exploits Currie’s willingness to pose in provocative outfits.
The movie plays chutes-and-ladders with the band’s trajectory while also recounting the Currie family’s woes. (Cherie’s sister Marie is left to take care of the girls’ alcoholic father.) The Runaways play dive venues in this country (the clean mix of the live songs seems highly implausible — you can even understand the lyrics!) but are treated like rock goddesses in Japan. The combination of unsupervised young ’uns, predatory men, and plentiful drugs is a recipe for disaster. Along the way, Currie finds comfort in the arms of Jett (there’s a tender love scene), and both are sustained by the kick-ass tunes that fill the soundtrack.
There are memorable moments that mitigate the lax storytelling — the opening close-up of a drop of Currie’s first-menstrual-period blood hitting hot pavement is a potent and hilarious foreshadowing of innocence lost. Shannon is perfectly cast, though he doesn’t get to be as scary as the real Fowley (who’s a creepy presence in the 2003 documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip). Fanning acts out suburbanite Currie’s transition to jailbait poster girl with affecting vulnerability, and if Stewart’s Jett seems a bit subdued, that’s okay. Jett is in it for the long haul; she cares about the music, and about their legacy. Imperfect as it is, The Runaways might have a legacy as well.