For those not in the know, the Runaways were a raucous all-girl rock band who looked set for world domination in the 1970s until the usual culprits - jealousy, drugs, dodgy management - tore them apart. This rise and fall biopic strikes an appropriate in-your-face tone when it opens in 1975 where blood hits the pavement as fifteen year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) has her first period. Trapped alongside her older sister between a flighty mother and deadbeat dad, Cherie indulges rock star fantasies onstage at a high school talent contest where she lip-synchs to David Bowie and responds to boys’ jeers with a hearty one-fingered salute. Meanwhile, aspiring rocker Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) wants to break into the business but faces sexist promoters and guitar tutors who maintain “girls don’t play electric guitar.”
The two girls lock eyes briefly at a party where Joan beguiles onetime pop star-turned-rock impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Fowley brings Cherie into the band as lead singer alongside Joan as rhythm guitarist/chief songwriter, genial drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and prickly lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton). “You bitches are going to be bigger than the fucking Beatles”, he announces with monstrous brio then drills them through the equivalent of rock boot camp. He bullies and berates the band through trailer park rehearsals involving such unorthodox motivational methods as hiring teenagers to pelt them with beer cans and faeces. His instincts prove correct as the Runaways hit the road and gradually amass a large fan-following culminating in the triumphant gig in Tokyo that spawned the classic live album The Runaways… Live in Japan, but tensions explode backstage and Cherie goes into meltdown.
Opinion remains sharply divided as to the Runaways’ merits as a band. Where some see them as proto-punk heroines others contend they were merely Fowley’s glam puppets with all that feminist talk nothing but his media-savvy hot air. There has always been an underlying melancholy to the Runaways’ story, a sense of promise left unfulfilled or at worst brutally squandered. It’s a tone debuting writer-director Floria Sigismondi captures well with a biopic that remains visually striking and well-paced, even though it splutters through the third act comedown once the Runaways’ implode. Co-produced by Joan Jett herself and based on Cherie Currie’s autobiography, Neon Angel, it comes as no surprise the film is skewed towards their point of view. Original bassist Jackie Fox wanted no part of the movie, hence she is replaced by a fictional character named Robin (Alia Shawkat), while future guitar heroine and glam metal pinup Lita Ford barely figures into the plot and even then is painted in a less than flattering light. Little wonder she is reportedly planning legal action.
The Runaways briefly resurfaced into the public consciousness when replacement bassist-turned-filmmaker Victory Tischler-Blue made the rock documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways (2003), which among other things lambasted Kim Fowley for his verbal and physical abuse of the group. Sigismondi’s film is similarly scathing about the megalomaniacal manager (who right from their first gig, pockets money that rightfully belongs to the group), but begrudgingly admits he was apt in stating “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido.” The movie posits the Runaways midway between Fowley’s embittered description of them as a “conceptual project that failed” and a sincere vehicle for Joan Jett and Cherie Currie’s reaction against the rock establishment’s hypocritical notion that girls should be dainty, demure and do as they’re told.
The casting hinges on a clever conceit in that it is as unsettling to see former fresh-faced child star Dakota Fanning in corset and fishnets as it must have been for the rock press when Currie took the stage in her trademark outfit. Fanning underlines her status as one of contemporary cinema’s most gifted young actors, and ably inhabits Currie while Kristen Stewart’s terse screen persona suits the role of Joan Jett. Their friendship, which at one point segues into sexual intimacy (in a trippy sequence sure to astonish Twilight fans), provides the emotional core of the movie, which leans towards the anecdotal with episodes such as Joan guiding Sandy through masturbation (fantasizing about Farrah Fawcett!), a scene where the girls pee on guitars belonging to a sexist rival rock band, and when Cherie and Joan snort all their cocaine before their plane lands in ultra-strict Japan.
Sigismondi maintains a lively pace, though it is only Fanning who keeps us watching through duller stretches involving Cherie’s family troubles. The real Cherie Currie went on to a brief acting career, though after her best film Foxes (1980) opposite Jodie Foster swiftly fell into substandard sci-fi like Parasite (1982) and a small role in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), before reinventing herself as a drug counsellor and artist. The movie plays her “reunion” with Joan Jett, via a live phone-in on the radio, in a low-key manner that captures the bittersweet vagaries of show business.