- The Runaways
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Screenplay by Floria Sigismondi
Based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherrie Currie Story by Cherrie Currie
Joan Jett – Kristen Stewart
Cherie Currie – Dakota Fanning
Robin – Alia Shawkat
Lita Ford – Scout Taylor-Compton
Kim Fowley – Michael Shannon
Bolster a Biopic About Women’s Libido
This week’s The Runaways, a biopic based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, follows the formation and dissolution of the ‘70s all-girl rock band The Runaways, but more importantly it’s an apt metaphor for the shock of a sudden thrust into adulthood. It follows lead singer Currie through rock stardom into a horrifying downward spiral. When they formed, The Runaways strummed a chord that hadn’t been struck yet; they were a symbol of feminine sexual power and prowess, a representation of women’s freedom to run with the boys, to be just as hardcore and just as naughty as their male counterparts.
“It’s not about women’s lib, kitties, it’s about women’s libido!” manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) screams to his young charges. The same could be said about the movie itself. It commences with blood when Currie (Dakota Fanning) gets her first period, and snowballs from there, touching on every aspect of sexual awakening—female sexual awakening, to be precise. Self-gratification and experimentation with both women and men occurs in the film, building an undercurrent of sexual energy that seems to buffet the band as they rise to international stardom. Coming-of-age stories for girls rarely touch so explicitly on feminine libido, and it’s a welcome change. Though the tabloids sensationalized a lesbian kiss between Fanning and Stewart, the sex scenes between the actresses are not exploitative. In fact, their personal relationship is just a thing that happened, which is an interesting and neat way to deal with the trials of growing up. Fowley denigrates the girls, “You’ve got to start thinking like men!” but they’re barely women yet.
The Runaways were essentially engineered by record producer Fowley, a psychotically manic weirdo who seems poised on that fine line between insanity and genius. Shannon’s performance is pitch-perfect, following in the steps of his Oscar-nominated role in Revolutionary Road and the underrated Bug. Shannon plays crazy with the best of them, and this role is cringe-worthy; he’s part letch, part greedy producer, part manipulative creep. Kristen Stewart, famous for her role as Bella Swan in the Twilight movies, plays Currie’s better-known counterpart Joan Jett. Her every sneer, every slouch, oozes pent-up energy and impotent rage. Onstage she’s a force to be reckoned with, sizzling with vitality and dripping sweat. Stewart showed potential in last year’s Adventureland, but her performance in The Runaways should ensure her career after the Twilight craze fades. Fanning, a child actress coming into her own, puts her heart into Currie but though her performance is gutsy it seems strained. She’s a sex kitten in lingerie, but her artless posing and dead eyes betray her—though to be fair, this also seems a fair description of the real Currie. There’s an uncomfortable exploitative focus on sexualizing Cherie, which is probably pointed—Currie was indeed fifteen years old when The Runaways went on tour. Scout Taylor-Compton as Lita Ford and Stella Maeve as Sandy West, both with great performances, round out the heart of the band. The underutilized Alia Shawkat (Whip It!, “Arrested Development”) was cast as a fictional catch-all for the band’s revolving bassists.
Since the movie is based on Currie’s autobiography, she’s the main protagonist of the film. Her alcoholic father, uncaring actress mother, and jealous sister form a thin support net for her, and the band is a fantastic escape from a dreary life in which her greatest dream was to be David Bowie.
Although Joan Jett’s story is awfully familiar, Stewart as Jett should’ve been given more screen time. The real Jett executive produced the film and worked closely with filmmakers and with Stewart to ensure the story was told correctly. One assumes they got most of it right; Ms. Jett wouldn’t have it any other way.
Director Floria Sigismondi is best known for her work in music videos: she’s directed for the likes of Marilyn Manson and David Bowie. Like its (underrated) glam-rock counterpart Velvet Goldmine, The Runaways feels at times like an extended music video. Sigismondi is obviously in her element during the band’s performance sequences, which take place everywhere from roller rinks to house parties to clubs to the studio. Sigismondi knows cinematography, and DP Benoît Debie uses grainy close-ups to bring the focus entirely to the subjects. The camera is rarely static, frenetically following the actors through performances and backstage dramas. The film’s costumes, hairstyles, and makeup are impeccable: the cast are quite literally transformed into their characters circa the 1970s. Stewart looks infinitely at home with Jett’s signature onyx mullet; Fanning in Currie’s feathered platinum locks; the ripped t-shirts, platform boots, and high-waisted jeans of the era integrate perfectly into the story.
Though the narrative has been done before—an innocent thrust suddenly into stardom, only to come crashing back down again—it’s always an interesting tale. The movie has flaws: pacing is off at times and the band’s eventual dissolution is anticlimactic. Fantastic performances from Stewart and Shannon bolster what could have been an entirely mediocre biopic. Even with a “wide” release, the film isn’t going to break box offices, but if you like glam rock, coming of age stories, or biopics about bands, The Runaways will be just the right medicine. It’s certainly a perfect antidote for the deluge of marriage-and-men-centered rom-coms flying through theaters on a weekly basis.