Dir/scr. Floria Sigismondi, USA, 2009, 102 minutes.
In The Runaways, music video director Floria Sigismondi’s debut feature, the early days of Joan Jett’s rock career are revisited without any cloying nostalgia. Sigismondi has made a rousing portrait of the eponymous 1970’s teenage band and taken a hard look at life on the road at a time when most girls with bands were groupies.With two major young stars in the cast, The Runaways should connect with the young female audience internationally, perhaps leading to a revival in sales for the band’s three albums, all released pre-1977. Jett’s original fans could also be piqued by good reviews when the film opens domestically on March 19 through Apparition. Needless to say, Kristen Stewart’s glow from Twilight will help globally.
Basing her script on the memoir Neon Angel: the Cherie Currie Story by the band’s singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), Sigismondi brings us back to the days when aspiring rock girls were Bowie fans (with obligatory Bowie hair) and punk was an as-yet unformed barrage of angry testosterone.
The story builds around Jett (who executive produces) and Currie, with Jett as the serious girl who always knew she wanted to play music, and Currie as the 15-year-old blonde recruited in a bar for her looks and later taught how to sing.
Both actresses sing themselves and perform more than competently. Stewart, who conveys Jett’s no-nonsense determination, lacks the singer’s guttural raspiness, but her voice and attitude do the job. Fanning as Cherie, meanwhile, starts out as a shy girl who gets by on her looks. In an audition scene in the filthy abandoned trailer where the group rehearsed in 1975, she is depicted stumbling clumsily through what would become the incendiary tune, Cherry Bomb, moments after manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and Jett write the song on the spot.
Fanning’s performance of the same song during scenes showing the group’s 1977 tour of Japan reveals the singer that Currie had become, and reminds us why the song terrified the parents of teenage girls.
Sigismondi uses performance scenes sparingly but effectively, balancing the romance of the road with a backstage reality check. Conflicts would eventually lead to Currie’s departure from the band in 1977.
Crucial to The Runaway’s sprint to stardom was manager/svengali Fowley, a profane rogue without a conscience who gave the girls their first break.
As Fowley, Shannon relishes in the gonzo rock entrepreneur role, erupting with zinger lines that any comedian would envy. Music “is not about women’s lib,” he lectures Cherie, “it’s about women’s libido.” Despite his agenda of greed and lust, which Shannon plays to the hilt, the eager girls signed with Fowley nonetheless.
Cinematographer Benoit Debie and production designer Eugenio Caballero capture the disco kitsch of those early days (alongside the blandness of the suburban “valley” that the girls fled), and chart the visual evolution toward hardened punk.
Stewart and Fanning give us the musical and sexual cockiness of teenage ambition, along with its constant vulnerabilities. Yet performances are not overplayed in an effort to make The Runaways another Sid and Nancy. The same deft modulation sustains scenes of Cherie’s volatile family life, in which Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) plays her twin sister Marie, who stays home reluctantly to care for their drunken father. Tatum O’Neal is blithely vain as the girls’ inattentive mother.
A vivid period piece, The Runaways is anything but an extended music video. It is an auspicious turn for Sigismondi.
River Road Entertainment
The Hollywood Reporter
PARK CITY -- "The Runaways" bursts with energy, youth, excess, female empowerment, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's an instant hit worldwide with its cast of young stars, but is it any good? Surprisingly, yes. It just must be met on its own terms.
Although neither a biopic nor a concert film about the famous/infamous 1970s all-female band the Runaways, the film does prefer music and bad behavior to insight, character or substance. First-time director Floria Sigismondi, whose background is in photography and video, surfs along the surface of the '70s rock scene in Los Angeles and, weirdly, Tokyo, to scoop up photo ops, sound bites and glimpses of a hardcore lifestyle. The vigor and pace is electric, and the movie features three showy performances by Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon.
Maybe the film falls into the category of Guilty Pleasures. The dark ugliness on display -- the amazing drug abuse and pre-AIDS hedonism -- looks probably too exciting. While the film makes it clear its personalities suffered tremendously for their addictions, it all looks so glam.
The Runaways had their run from 1975-79. The movie so collapses this half-decade run of rock stardom and self-destruction that it feels like the rise and fall of the Runaways happened over a long holiday weekend.
The focus is on three dynamic personalities: wild child Cherie Currie (Fanning), the lead singer; androgynous ringleader Joan Jett on electric guitar; and the band's Svengali, Kim Fowley (Shannon), a record impresario whose attire reads neither male nor female.
This focus makes sense creatively but also legally as the producers never secured life story rights for other band members. The film is loosely based on Currie's 1989 memoir, "Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story." That book, however, delves more into Currie's drug addiction, one-film movie career and downward spiral than it does the Runaways. Jett, by the way, is the film's executive producer.
As the movie tells it, the Runaways are an accidental band. Joan approaches Kim outside a rock club one night and mentions her idea of forming an all-girl band. A light bulb goes off in his ever-scheming head, so he introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stelle Maeve). Trolling another bar later, looking for a lead singer, he spots the underage Cherie and is immediately taken with her post-Marilyn Monroe/Brigitte Bardot look.
Only Cherie gets her San Fernando Valley background sketched in, though sketched is the word, with Dad a drunk, Mom (former child actress herself Tatum O'Neal) remarried and living in Indonesia and a loving though iffy relationship with a sister (Riley Keough). Mostly, the film plays out a battle of wills between Joan and Kim to control the band and especially its loose cannon, Cherie.
For she is the key, because Cherie is the angel-from-hell face of the band. Kim exploits her and her teen sexuality to the fullest, even setting up a lurid photo shoot of her for a Japanese magazine without telling the other band members.
Stewart in short-cropped dark hair and dark clothes is the movie's driving force as Joan Jett. The movie never appreciates Jett's musical passion and savvy, but it does capture her burning ambition.
Fanning gets to play the film's most flamboyant character with her fishnet stockings and skin-tight corsets, but the trap here is that, for all its truth, it's repetitive and cliched. Still, the young actress makes you feel the confusions beneath an overconfident facade.
Shannon seals the character-actor stardom he launched with his Oscar-nominated performance in "Revolutionary Road" as the flamboyant music promoter/producer/manager who challenges the girls to discover their "balls." There is never a quiet moment in a life focused on supplying immediate gratification to audiences -- and to himself.
The film steers pretty clear of the more salacious side to the Runaways' reality. It doesn't linger long on the two teens' sexuality, expressed with both sexes and with each other. Instead, Sigismondi rushes back onstage for another performance or plays Runaways music over the film's many montages.
The actor-musicians play and sing reasonably well, or at least fake it reasonably well. Sigismondi's collaborators, especially designer Eugenio Caballero and cinematographer Benoit Debie, make the film's many environments reflect the colors and excesses of the '70s.
In the end, "Runaways" celebrates their music more than anything, even as it tries to give an impression of lives forever on the road where no one -- other than Kim, who refuses to travel -- has a home. The film is not memorable in the sense one recalls it afterward only in flashes and impressions. No scene particularly stands out. And the performances hit emotional and physical highs very early and then stay there.
This might be smart. Probably no one would sit still for a deep-dish biopic about any of the band members. Their product, as Kim sagely puts it, isn't music but sex. So the movie, like the band, is selling flash and glitz and a story about how a group of girls stormed the boys club of rock a little more than a decade after the Beatles.