Judge Bill Gibron is waiting for hard-hitting exposés on other artists on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack...Foghat, anyone?
Can't stay at home, can't stay at school
They were the ultimate extension of the musical mantra that champions sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They wanted to prove they could play power chords side by side with any all boy bands, and completely hold their own. On the landscape of male dominated rock, they were a weird, perplexing anomaly. Part gimmick, part compelling quintet, these gals seemed to have it all—talent, tenacity and lurid come-hither looks. So why didn't they become superstars? Why aren't they celebrated in the annals of music history? Heck, why aren't they at least a recognizable part of rock's story, let alone a somewhat memorable household name?
Sadly, the ersatz legend of The Runaways appears to be peppered with such perplexing questions. For a group groomed to succeed, their triumph was short lived and wholly centralized (to Europe and Asia, mostly). Instead of breaking through that gratuitous glass ceiling, this five-girl combo barely got off the launching pad before egos and excess literally tore them apart. In sexual terminology, edgeplay means a dangerous or painful perversion. This describes the rollercoaster ride of the Runaways perfectly, as well as the movie named after said expression.
Man, did wayward teen boys in the early '70s cream their non-designer jeans over the Runaways—Cherie Currie (lead singer), Lita Ford (guitars), Joan Jett (guitar, vocals), Jackie Fox (bass), and Sandy West (drums). Playing perfectly to this awkward, pubescent demographic, and never once shying away from the blatant draw of jailbait sexuality, the all-girl band represented every adolescent male's muddled flesh fantasy. These were gals—"foxes," to apply the vernacular—that promised a hot time in the hayloft and had the hard-ridden looks to prove it. From an unobtainable glamour queen (lead singer Cherie) to the "chick who you knew would probably date you" (drummer Sandy West), the doll dynamic seemed handpicked to exploit and manipulate each and every single ounce of ornery testosterone.
And for the most part, such an assumption was/is correct. Producer/Svengali Kim Fowley and more or less an American Malcolm McLaren created the combo, carefully choosing the right blend of sex appeal, athleticism, personality contrasts, and musical chops to hopefully stimulate the shorthairs—as well as record sales. That his aesthetic produced a band more notorious than classic is no accident. This was a group with built in adolescent obsolescence at its very foundation. They were meant to fail from the very beginning.
That the Runaways were as manufactured as they come is indeed a given. That they were ahead of their time is a little more suspect. The rock scene of the '70s was a male dominated disco dinosaur straddling the social boundaries between art and atrocious. No matter what higher goals any of the gals profess, or aesthetic angles Fowley feels made up the reason for the band, the Runaways were just pussy on parade, a chance for fans to experience a little underage undulation without the threat of statutory rape laws. One look at the archival footage offered in the fascinating film Edgeplay: The Film About the Runaways and its not hard to see what the band and its backers were striving for.
Perhaps the most telling image comes from a Japanese concert. In this clip, we see lead singer Currie, wearing a white corset, black fishnet stockings, and panties that almost violate the bikini line limits, stalking the stage. The rest of the group, decked out in a Village People-esque tableau of every conceivable bad girl cliché, from horny mall rock to leather leaning biker chick, are throwing signs and sweating with backseat mambo glee. There are lots of low cut tops and midriff exposure, while the typical feathered or shagged hair is doing its Beer on Tap best to bounce and behave in a provocative manner. They could have been constructing complex polyphonics or channeling a dead Gamelan orchestra, and no one would have cared. Audiences came to a Runaways show to witness heated teen ardor in all its prom queen pulchritude. The documentary makes it very clear that iconography both made and unmade this band. No one took them seriously for that very reason, yet everyone paid attention to them directly because of it.
What Edgeplay also does so well, perhaps better than any other music documentary out there, is show the devastating and lasting effects of this kind of semi-instant slut-based stardom on, by now, middle aged woman. For the band, especially Lita and Sandy, the Runaways were the biggest missed opportunity on the planet, their one chance at lasting rock and roll immortality prematurely snatched away by greed, incompetence, lust, and questionable motivations. To them—and Joan Jett, who refused to participate here—the Runaways were something special squandered, a true chance for these semi-soul sisters to prove to the world that they could produce power chords with the best of them. Unfortunately, the gender conspiracy sidetracked them every step of the way.
Filmmaker Vicki Blue (herself, a replacement for bass player Fox near the end of the Runaways' career) does a brilliant job of dissecting the issues involved, emphasizing the scandalous only when it serves the story. This is not a dishy, tell-all tale of wasted days and wasted nights. Instead, Blue builds up layers of lewd and lascivious behavior, showing the overall immaturity of everyone involved. To expect a band made up of teenagers to tackle—head on—the corrupting forces around them was ridiculous. To see how juvenile the adults around them acted is one of Edgeplay's more startling revelations.
As mentioned before, Jett refused to contribute, even going so far as to block the use of certain seminal Runaways recordings that she either wrote or co-wrote. The lack of this music, and her presence, does not irreparably damage Edgeplay, but it doesn't do it any great service either. Joan is constantly cited as the smart one, the quiet one, the person least effected by Fowley's freakish ways and the individual most focused on being part of a band. In a film where almost everyone else is cast in some manner of miserable light, where their character and personality are criticized and hammered relentless, Joan comes across pretty good, so why she would choose to opt out is mystifying. According to published reports, Jett felt she was underrepresented in the film when she saw a near finished rough cut. Of course, she is only seen in vintage clips and some onstage material, so what did she expect? The same argument was made when Joey Ramone's family saw End of the Century; however, in the frontman's defense, he was dead before the movie finally got going.
Still, in employing what she had, and by using her own experiences to foster and extract some very revealing details from her bandmates, Blue's Edgeplay is absolutely mesmerizing. There is a real Rashomon feel to the individual stories, with Ford blaming Currie for incidents the lead singer claims Lita herself was guilty of. Rumors are repeated and miscommunications continued as the gals gossip about each others' weaknesses and whining. Under such circumstances, one may assume that this documentary is one big bitchfest, literally. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is a tragedy flecked with tabloid moments, an emotionally draining character study where we learn more about the personalities than the façade they created together.
Edgeplay is not really about the Runaways as a band—its a starkly moving look at a group of forward thinking females who got used and abused by a system set up to help them fail. One can easily see the band being popular today, as button pushing and potent as they pretended to be almost 30 years ago. But instead of mediocre music (it needs to be said, frankly) we get an amazingly dense and dramatic motion picture. While their albums may be forgotten works of artificial angst, Edgeplay contains a cauldron of the real deal. In a year already filled with fine rock docs, this one sits right beside them, shoulder to sad shoulder.
Image's treatment of this title is first rate. Blue shot the film on video as well as film. There is also a great deal of archival material incorporated into this visually varied offering. The non-anamorphic full screen image has been cropped, giving the footage a faux-letterbox feel. It is hard to tell what the aspect ratio is, actually. Even with such visual violations of the DVD Presentation Act, the picture is pristine, with hardly a defect in appearance. Colors are correct and contrasts are kept high so we can see every age-defying wrinkle on the ladies' still lovely faces.
The sonics, on the other hand, are another story altogether. Filled with a regal rawness that really tries to sell the group as manageable metal honeys, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix provides a nice balance between the instruments and the elements. Most of the soundtrack comes from live footage, or newly recorded tracks, and each sings in this sensational setting. Voices are easy to understand, and even when backed by rip-snorting rock and roll, all conversations are easily understood.
Sadly, the extras leave a lot to be desired. Everything you see listed as a potential bonus is actually part of the film itself—except for the trailers (which are pretty good) and the gallery (which is just an extended ad for the movie). What we really needed was a commentary, or perhaps a Jett solo sit-down. A "where are they now" text wrap-up would have been nice, as would a discography for everyone involved. Still, with a movie this special, having a good technical presentation provides some forgiving leeway for an otherwise lamentable lack of contextual material.
Today, when someone says "all girl rock band," the usual suspects line up their hits and say "Hello": The Bangles, The Go-Gos, The Donnas. In some ways, it's sad that the Runaways don't also immediately come to mind. Call them trendsetters, or tacky '70s sham, but the truth is that they were really just trying to make a name for themselves in a rather unforgiving business. They were just teenage girls, ill prepared for the pitfalls of fame. And it's their story that makes Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways so substantive.
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