Published Mar 18, 2010Last year when photos of Kristen Stewart surfaced on the internet dressed in character as legendary rock goddess Joan Jett, the music world dusted off the vinyl and spun the reel-to-reel in preparation for the biopic of the Runaways, the real-life '70s teenage all-girl rock band that broke the glass ceiling of women in rock'n'roll, yet disbanded before attaining the heights of superstardom, at least on this side of the pond. They were "big in Japan," if that counts.
Today we don't question the ability of girls to kick ass with Fenders and amps (Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Die Mannequin), but as we see in the first act when Jett tries to take a guitar lesson, in 1975 it was understood that "girls don't play electric guitar." Together with Bowie fan Cherie Currie, who adds a Bardot element to their tough rock quartet, the Runaways, with the help of record producer Kim Fowley, by hook or by crook, attempt world domination.
Loaded with lesbian proclivities and drug habits, they defiantly proclaim their music isn't about women's lib, but women's libido. "Jail fucking bait" and "Jack fucking pot" are just some of the terms used to describe them. Wild and braless, they'd rather sleep with guitars than guys, which really resonates in the scenes where they teach each other to masturbate. But their over-sexualization, drug usage and loss of adolescence bring tension to the band, and the cracks begin to show.
Stewart is joined by Dakota Fanning, as lead singer Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as record producer Kim Fowley. While Stewart gives Jett an understated, calm quality, like a wise sage (who could still kick the ass off a truck driver), Fanning is uncomfortably rigid and stale. She's out of her depth here, so much so that she really should only have been cast after she hit puberty.
Stewart channels Alice Cooper while Fanning changes the channel. What's most odd is in a film about women rockers, Michael Shannon gives the real performance here. Just like in Revolutionary Road (where he stole every scene away from Leonardo DiCaprio and let us all know it), Shannon is brazen, balls-out and truly God's gift to reckless abandon. He catapults himself between scenes, inviting risk and owning the show.
Tatum O'Neal and Riley Keough are aptly cast in supporting roles, since the former was a child star, with well-documented troubles with drugs, and the latter is Elvis Presley's granddaughter (and Michael Jackson's daughter-in-law, no less).
Produced by Joan Jett and based on Cherie Currie's autobiography, The Runaways is written and directed by Ontario-raised Floria Sigismondi, who juxtaposes each scene with evocative angles, imagery and cinematography, but somehow in all the colour and music we lose the story. She treats us to fast-paced, exciting scenes where songs like their immortal "Cherry Bomb" were written within a matter of minutes, but there also some very under-developed scenes that hint at family strife and band discord that are too embryonic to reach full realization.
We get all these flashes of the rock'n'roll lifestyle (which Sigismondi is no stranger to, having directed music videos for Marilyn Manson and Christina Aguilera), but these have become standard tropes for this fare. Ooh, here's garish makeup, copious amounts of drugs, booze, passing out in elevators, etc., but we never really get a sense of what life was like for them in that extremely short but powerful period of punk history.
Unlike classic rock films like Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Almost Famous, Walk The Line or Stop Making Sense, we never discover what it is these girls are really raging against. School? Men? Parents?
There's an indescribable quality that all great rock'n'roll films have. The Runaways comes so close, but in the end, it just has too much unrealized potential to fully work. However, watching Kristen Stewart pull down her skin-tight pants to take a piss on some asshole's guitar is worth the price of admission alone. (E1)