Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Runaways: Road to Ruin

The Runaways (2010) • View trailer for The Runaways
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for underage drinking, drug use and sensuality, and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.10
Buy DVD: The Runaways

As immaturity, frayed tempers and atrocious lifestyle choices take their toll, the other four members of the ground-breaking all-grrl punk-rock band The Runaways turn on their photogenic lead singer, objecting to the way that she repeatedly steals the spotlight.

"We're not the Cherie Currie band," one of them snarls, "we're The Runaways!"
While Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, left) watches nervously, newcomer Cherie
Curie (Dakota Fanning, center) is humiliated into exposing her inner slut
during an "audition" that feels more like a casting-couch session for a porn
film, in a seminal moment during the creation of the all-girl band that is
destined to become The Runaways. Are these girls really having fun?

Well, here's the irony: This film may be hitting theaters as The Runaways, but that's untruth in advertising. It should be called The Cherie Currie Story.

On one level, at least, that shouldn't come as a surprise; writer/director Floria Sigismondi's screenplay is adapted from Currie's memoir, Neon Angel. Small wonder, then, that this film spends so much time on Currie, at the expense of the other four girls ... even though one of them is Joan Jett, the only member to have clawed her way into a solid and respectable career after The Runaways crashed and burned.

Small wonder, perhaps, but bad filmmaking. Dakota Fanning's Currie and Kristen Stewart's Jett are front and center for 99 percent of this picture.

The other three band members are ignored to a degree that's initially puzzling and eventually just plain silly, and one of them  Alia Shawkat's Robin  is a fictitious construct apparently intended to stand in for the various "minor" girls (Micki Steele, Peggy Foster, Jackie Fox, Vicki Blue and Laurie McAllister) who were part of the tempestuous line-up that also included Sandy West (played here by Stella Maeve) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton).

Sigismondi similarly plays fast and loose with actual Runaways history, and has a terrible sense of the passage of time.

Although the film has a firm beginning in 1975, we never really know how many years actually pass as the fledgling band builds up a following that climaxes with a tour of Japan (for the record, in 1977) that rivaled The Beatles' original arrival in the United States, for sheer demented fan adulation.

And that  again, for the sake of accuracy  essentially was it. Currie decamped after the band returned to the States, a crucial event that Sigismondi depicts of necessity ... but then "time passes" and, in something of an epilogue, we see Jett, following the smash 1979 single ("I Love Rock 'n' Roll") that put her on the solo map. Cue power anthem, roll final credits.

Well ... not quite.

Irritatingly, this film completely skips the period from late 1977 to early 1979, when Jett took over as lead vocalist with The Runaways, and the band recorded two more albums (for a total of five) en route to a final tour that concluded with a New Year's Eve show at San Francisco's Cow Palace.

That's a lot of missing detail, for a film that purports to tell the story of this band.

Sigismondi is far more obsessed with the debauched lifestyle enjoyed (?) by these underage girls, who spend much of the time here wallowing in a depraved blend of drugs, alcohol, casual sex and emotional abuse at the hands of their instinctively talented but utterly repugnant rock Svengali, Kim Fowley (a memorably loathsome performance by Michael Shannon).

It becomes ... tedious.

And shabbily exploitative, since Fanning  at 16  is just as young as Currie was, back in the day, when (as just one yucky example) she posed for a series of Maxim-style bordello shots in a highly questionable magazine photography session.

This particular chapter of rock 'n' roll history begins in the summer of 1975, as 15-year-old Joan Jett meets both Sandy West and Fowley at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, the famed Hollywood club known for the glitter rock of David Bowie and his ilk. We never learn much about Joan's personal life, except that she has a flirty relationship with a similarly dark-garbed gal pal.

Sandy remains no more than an iconic California surfer chick, who happens to play the drums.

Somehow  again, we don't get these details  the fledgling all-girl band has grown to a quartet in November, by the time Fowley spots Cherie, also not yet 16.

In a memorable recreation of the famous impromptu audition during which Joan and Fowley composed "Cherry Bomb" on the spot, the play-sleazy but still somewhat timid Cherie is badgered by the much older Fowley into releasing her inner slut ("I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!").

This scene, at least, is electrifying: riveting, haunting, impressively uncomfortable and utterly unforgettable. Anybody concerned about Fanning's ability to transition from child star to adult actor need worry no longer; she's absolutely amazing.

Prior to this life-changing moment, we've learned a fair amount about Cherie's home life with twin sister Marie (Riley Keough) and their hopelessly drunk father and self-absorbed, melodramatically theatrical mother. The girls are essentially raising themselves; Marie, the long-suffering and responsible one, regards her twin's bad-girl lifestyle with increasing alarm.

Her fears are well-founded. Doesn't do any good, though.

Cherie's induction into the band, and the ensemble's rigorous "preparations"  as orchestrated by the foul-mouthed Fowley  are a weird blend of army boot camp and guidelines for the average street-walker. It's an essential mix, Fowley insists, because nobody wants to see young girls on a stage doing anything but singing; banging drums and shredding guitars are absolutely out of the question.

This may come as a surprise to the younger portion of this film's target audience, which has grown up believing angry grrl bands to be as ubiquitous as iPods. Truth be told, The Runaways were a trend-setting phenom in the mid-1970s, both for their saucy youth and their gender.

Sigismondi doesn't really explain this very well, aside from one quick scene that displays contempt and hostility from members of the "traditional" (read: all-male) band for whom The Runaways open during their first tour. Nor do we get any sense of how truly shocking Joan and Cherie were, in terms of the way they dressed, both on stage and in public. We live in an everything-goes world today, but it sure as heck wasn't that way in the mid-'70s; Bowie's glam-rock lifestyle hadn't yet kick-started the more outrageous 1980s fashion trends.

Sigismondi similarly avoids dealing with what seems the obvious fact that Fowley is financially screwing his new act. Did the obviously savvy Joan ever tumble to this? If so, did she do anything about it? No answers here, folks.

Just as Fanning is persuasively lost and vulnerable as Cherie -— a candle waiting to be snuffed by too many intoxicating substances  Stewart demonstrates solid acting chops that she never gets a chance to share in the Twilight franchise. Although her behavior is, for the most part, as unrestrained as Cherie's, Joan has the combative sense of self-preservation that we'd expect of an alpha survivor; it's in Stewart's steely gaze and aggressive body language.

It's interesting, in hindsight, to reflect on the peculiar tenor of the '70s rock world. The sexual fetishism of Cherie Currie never could happen today, at a time when "child porn" has become a rallying cry and Miley Cyrus gets in trouble for mildly suggestive photographs. And yet the sexually provocative Jett and Currie  and The Runaways  definitely paved the way for The Bangles, The Go-Go's and the myriad femme acts that followed.

Too bad, then, that this film is such a sloppy and lop-sided historical document ... which is additionally odd, given Jett's role as a co-executive producer.

Ah, well. The music, at least, has the same memorably angry fire that swept the world 35 years ago.

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