Sony // 2010 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // July 26th, 2010
Cherie: "I need my life back, you know?"
Joan: "This is my life."
The Runaways, based on Cherie Currie's memoir (Neon Angel) and produced by Joan Jett, tells the story of the two women's coming of age as the frontwomen for the all-girl punk rock band, The Runaways. Although they've acted together before in the Twilight saga, real-life buddies Kristen Stewart (Jett) and Dakota Fanning (Currie) here turn in some impressive performances as the band's "rock and roll heart" and its "sex kitten," respectively. Theirs is the central relationship, not just of the band, but also of the film, and it is this relationship that sets The Runaways apart from other entries in the musical biopic genre. While viewers of this genre might expect to see a rivalry between Joan, the band's founder and songwriter, and Cherie, its lead singer, The Runaways confounds this expectation and instead gives us the story of two friends (sometimes friends-with-benefits!). Fans of The Runaways' songs might wish for the music to take center stage, but in my mind, the on-screen chemistry between Stewart and Fanning more than makes up for it.
It is 1975, and Joan Jett and Cherie Currie are Southern California teenage misfits with rock and roll dreams. Cherie's love of David Bowie and glam rock makes her an outsider among her peers. Joan, meanwhile, fantasizes about forming her own rock band but is told that "girls don't play electric guitars." Nevertheless, Joan manages to convince record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road) to help her build her dream: an all-girl rock band.
Before long, Fowley and Joan discover 15-year-old Cherie at a nightclub, and decide that her style -- "A little Bowie, a little Bardot. A look on your face that says 'I could kick the shit out of a truck driver'" -- will give them the badass sex appeal they've lacked. In the following months, Fowley becomes the group's foulmouthed, flamboyant Yoda, teaching them the ins and outs of the male-dominated rock scene: "What's our product? Sex. Violence. Revolt. Now, I'm going to teach you prima donnas how to think with your cock." The band's rise to fame is rapid, as is their premature breakup, but along the way a passionate friendship between Cherie and Joan is born.
The Runaways is a film that, in many ways, follows the narrative conventions of the rise-and-fall-of-a-musical-group genre (such as That Thing You Do, What's Love Got to Do with It, and Almost Famous). Starting with a portrait of the artist(s) as scrappy unknowns, we witness the exhilaration of their early successes, the negative influences of sex, drugs, and rock and roll fame on both the artists' personal lives and their music, and the eventual breakdown of the artists' formative creative partnerships. Since the latter two films are, like The Runaways, based on the subjects' real-life experiences, I suspect that this is simply a very common story, rather than a case of lazy writing.
While many of its plot points are more than a little familiar, The Runaways manages to make them feel fresh, partly due to the novelty of showing an all-girl band trying to make it in the tough, male-dominated rock scene. Away from home, the band sleeps in dirty motel rooms, experiments with drugs, and contends with misogynistic hecklers. After one such incident, in which their sound check is cut short by a male group that tells them to go home (amusingly revealed in the commentary track to be the band Rush), Joan retaliates by peeing on their guitars. When the band starts to resent Cherie's role as the (sexy) face of the Runaways, Joan makes clear that she's not interested in power, but musical legitimacy:
Joan: "This is all they're ever going to say about us. Do you think
they're ever going to take us seriously?"
Cherie: "It's for publicity, it helps everybody."
Joan: "What were you thinking? Publicize the music, not your crotch."
What is special about this particular story is that, at the same time as the band is maturing, so are its members. The film's coming-of-age themes are telegraphed during its very first, very graphic shot: blood dripping down Cherie's leg and onto the pavement as she gets her first period. In the film, Fowley, listening to the Runaways perform, declares: "That's the sound of hormones raging." As the girls grow increasingly confident on stage, learning to growl and scream, they also grow into their sexuality. Joan teaches Sandy to masturbate, suggesting she think about Farrah Fawcett, and Cherie starts sleeping with the band's road manager. Some of the sexiest moments, however, come from the chemistry between Stewart and Fanning.
Stewart plays Joan as a girl who's both protective of Cherie and also a little bit in love with her. For me, one of the strongest aspects of the film was its matter-of-fact treatment of Joan's queerness: it is not shy about showing Joan making out with both boys and girls -- more girls, though, if you're counting -- but neither does it feel the need to define her sexuality with a label. And, while Cherie was billed as the sex kitten of the group, Stewart's portrayal of Joan felt far sexier to me (and less uncomfortable, since Fanning was only 15 when she shot this film!). As Joan, Stewart channels her trademark awkward mannerisms and apparent standoffishness into a sort of boyish cool -- slouching, swearing, and looking most comfortable when she has a guitar in her capable hands -- that is both tough and incredibly hot.
Of course, a film that deals with girls in their mid-teens exploring their sexuality could easily feel exploitative, a point that one of the men working on the film makes while being interviewed for one of the extras, "Plugged In: Making the Film." Speaking about the writer-director, Floria Sigismondi, he says, "Floria's great. I think part of the reason she can make this movie is that she's a woman. If you and I tried to make this thing, we'd be perverts. They'd lock us up and throw away the key."
While Sigismondi herself does a commendable job, for the most part, of showing the girls' sexuality without exploiting it, the same could hardly be said for those managing The Runaways. Fowley, upon meeting Cherie, makes it clear that he's picked her for her looks, not her talent. After he learns that she is fifteen, he walks off, saying to himself, "Jail-fucking-bait! Jack-fucking-pot!" Fowley stresses to the girls that "this isn't about women's lib; this is about women's libido." Later on, Cherie takes Fowley's instruction to "think with your cock" seriously and assembles a corset and garter belt ensemble to wear onstage; Joan, who's disturbed by Cherie's willingness to objectify herself, comments, "You're basically ready for the peep show circuit. All you need's a porn name." The film sets up the dichotomy between its two leads nicely, showing Joan as the one with a dream and the drive to pursue it, while Cherie seems always a little bit lost, a little too ready to please others and let someone else take the lead. When Joan upbraids Cherie for doing a photo shoot without the rest of the band, Cherie defends herself, saying, "Kim just sent them over, they showed up at my house. What was I supposed to say?" She looks genuinely surprised when Joan answers, "You could say no." When Cherie finally learns that lesson, it means the end of The Runaways. Standing up to Fowley at last, as he insists that she obey him and get in the recording booth, Cherie tells him, "No."
For special features, this disc included just two items, plus a feature-length commentary by Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart, and Dakota Fanning. The latter is fun to listen to, as Stewart is clearly in awe of Jett (making several admiring remarks), and she has a friendly, teasing sort of banter going on with Fanning. I was eager to hear what Jett had to say about the events in the film, and for the most part, she lived up to my expectations. We get to hear about which parts of the story have been embellished, and which are shown more or less as they actually happened. Sadly, though, Jett is less forthcoming during some of the juicier scenes of the movie (such as when Joan and Cherie kiss and, the next morning, wake up naked in bed together). Stewart laughs nervously, Fanning says nothing, and Jett says, "You'll have to go somewhere else for your jollies. I've got nothing to say." Elsewhere, Stewart and Fanning spend a lot of time making self-effacing comments about how nervous they were or how funny they look in a particular scene. Overall, while the commentary offered some interesting information about the events in the film, it wasn't among the funniest or most insightful I've heard -- evidence that performers do not always make the best commentators.
The two other special features are a fifteen-minute making-of documentary ("Plugged In: Making the Film") and a two-minute trailer/commentary ("The Runaways"). The first feature is a compilation of interviews with cast and crew members about different aspects of the filmmaking process: adapting the story, casting, creating an authentic 1970s look, and several other points. Many of the interviews offered some helpful insights, although I'd have liked to see this featurette divided up a bit more clearly into themes. The second feature on the disc is quite confusing -- it takes some scenes from the movie, some snippets of interviews from the first feature, and ends as if it's the movie trailer. Overall, the disc felt a bit light on bonus features (and the Blu-ray version offers nothing further), especially music-related ones, as I'll discuss below.
In the making-of documentary, several crew members insist that they did not want to make "just" a music movie -- they wanted to show the band members' relationships and growth over the course of the film. Indeed, those aspects of The Runaways were fairly strong. As a music movie, however, this film had a number of problems.
The actual Runaways and Joan Jett songs were thrillingly raw, and they supplied both energy and emotion to many scenes in the film. Someone in the editing room, however, seems to have gotten a little bit overzealous about making the music really loud, with the result that the sound balance was not what it should have been. I turned my speakers up to hear some of the quieter dialogue scenes, and then, when the music came on, I had to quickly dial the volume down to avoid blowing out my speakers, my eardrums, or both. While this may not bother some listeners, having to turn the volume down while listening to throbbing rock songs made me feel like a fuddy-duddy. Image quality fared better, with little to complain about in the visual presentation of the band's gritty lifestyle.
Another small gripe is that I'd have loved to have at least one special feature that talked about the music in the film. In the commentary track, Jett, Stewart, and Fanning allude to the actresses learning to play guitar and sing, respectively, but little else is said about that. There is also an official "Cherry Bomb" music video starring Stewart and Fanning available on YouTube, but it is not included in the special features, either, nor do we get any footage of the actual Runaways performing. Compare this to the Tina Turner biopic, What's Love Got to Do with It, in which the final shot transitions from Angela Bassett playing Tina Turner to the real Tina Turner, triumphantly singing and dancing. Still some other films in which music plays a prominent role, such as Mamma Mia!, devote special features to talking with the film's musical director about how the music was recorded, how the film was designed to match the tone and aesthetics of the music, and any number of other related issues. In comparison, The Runaways has little to say about the music that we'd expect to be the film's core.
Although The Runaways was one of the first successful all-girl bands, this isn't just a story about young girls trying to get ahead in a male-dominated field. As this gritty little film makes clear, through both Stewart's compelling performance and the undeniable power of The Runaways' songs on the soundtrack, the band was important not only for women, but also for rock and roll. The movie doesn't spend an excessive amount of time on the music, instead preferring to put it in the background or to intersperse performances with dialogue. For those who do not enjoy watching concert movies, this will be a definite plus for The Runaways. For those who do, there is still a lot to love.
Guilty of getting some infectiously catchy songs stuck in my head.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Website