The Runaways (Apparition, R)

The Runaways successfully captures the spirit of the times.

 

It’s hard to communicate to people who weren’t around in the 1970s how historically important The Runaways are. In those days girls who liked rock were assigned the role of groupie, not musician, until The Runaways came along and started kicking ass and taking names. They existed as a band from 1975 to 1979, during which time which they were headliners in the U.S. as well as one of the most popular bands in Japan, recorded for Mercury Records, and opened the door for the many female rock musicians who have followed.

Short of a time machine the best way to experience this epoch-changing band is through Floria Sigismondi’s film The Runaways, which successfully captures the spirit of the times. I can’t entirely judge the factual merit of the film (the script, also by Sigismondi, is based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s autobiographical Neon Angel) but that’s not really the point. The Runaways gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to be 15 years old and go from being the girl everyone makes fun of to a rocker touring the world. It also conveys a sense of what it took to get there as well as the price paid by these young musicians.

The film is not a masterpiece—it compresses the band’s career so it seems to have lasted only about a week, focuses on only two band members (in part for legal reasons), spends too much on the sordid side of the rock business and throws in some girl-on-girl action which feels gratuitous—but it’s definitely worth seeing. The Runaways is carried by standout performances from Michael Shannon as the possibly sinister and certainly exploitative record producer Kim Fowley, Kristen Stewart (yes, the Twilight girl) as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie as well as a pulsating soundtrack of songs by The Runaways and other bands of the period.

Shannon seems to be the new Heath Ledger, disappearing into each role so completely that you hardly realize that he’s an actor playing a part. As Fowley he is by turns bizarre, threatening, avuncular and manipulative all the while keeping his eye on the main chance. Nothing surprising there: he didn’t get all those platinum albums by being sentimental. Stewart as Joan Jett is a revelation: she’s a girl who knows what she wants and knows that she’s going to get it. Fanning has the most dramatic material to work with—she’s the only character whose family we meet (it includes a dutiful sister, an alcoholic father and a bizarre mother)—but the film spends too much time on her personal troubles to the detriment of the far more interesting story of the band.

I’m slightly older than Joan Jett, so I can tell you that it was no fun being a teenage girl in the 1970s if you didn’t fit into one of the pre-approved boxes. It was acceptable in those days for music teachers to say things like “girls don’t play electric guitar” (or as I heard a university professor say, women musicians should get an education degree). The double standard was firmly in place so everyone felt free to pass judgment on girls leaving no room for the making of mistakes which should be part of growing up. Which is a long way of leading up to saying that my feelings about Kim Fowley, sleaze though he may be, are tempered by this fact: he saw the potential of these young women as musicians and helped them go for their dream when no one else was willing to do so. Of course he profited handsomely (that’s why they call it the music business, kids) and ripped them off in the process (hardly a new story in that line of work) and the band didn’t last forever, but then what does?

Since The Runaways places such emphasis on a down-and-out period of Cherie Currie’s life it’s worth noting that the band members haven’t done too badly for themselves since breaking up in 1979. Joan Jett remains a bona fide rock star, Cherie Currie recorded several solo albums and had a career as an actress before retiring to become a “chainsaw artist” (an excellent career choice for an ex-rocker if ever there was one), Lita Ford has had a modest solo career, Jackie Fox (for legal reasons replaced in The Runaways by the fictitious character played by Alia Shawkat) became an entertainment lawyer, Micki Steele played with The Bangles, and Sandy West continued to work as a drummer until her death from cancer in 2006. | Sarah Boslaugh

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