THE RUNAWAYS Review:
"Can't stay at home, can't stay at school
Old folks say, ya poor little fool
Down the street I'm the girl next door
I'm the fox you've been waiting for
Hello Daddy, hello Mom
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb
Hello world I'm your wild girl
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb!"
- If you love rock n' roll, then you just might love The Runaways - a movie that bleeds, sweats, and vomits rock n' roll grit, style, and attitude. The Runaways as a movie completely succeeds at evoking a specific time and place, at capturing an era - and it tells a story that's both inspiring and at times tragic. But there is rock n' roll magic here. There are some absolutely amazing performances from the young cast. There's some awesomely stylized and artistic avant-garde direction. And there are moments that make you just want to pump your fist, bang your head, and rock the %$#& out.
The movie tells the true-life story of The Runaways, the trailblazing all-girl rock band that emerged onto the Hollywood music scene in the mid-seventies. Consisting of teenaged girls, none older than 16 at the time of the band's founding, The Runaways mixed sleaze and sex appeal with legit musical chops and proto-punk attitude to make waves here and abroad - launching the careers of grrrl power icons like Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The movie is in some ways a standard rock biopic, but to me it's about more than just pop-culture history. In some ways, this is a film about daring to be different - about breaking glass ceilings and having the strength of will to go against the grain.
Sure, The Runaways began as a manufactured concept-band, but the film shows us that its members had a special x-factor that couldn't simply be engineered. They were outcasts, rebels, girls who wouldn't conform and couldn't ignore that inner demon calling them to the dark side, the side of rock. We see Joan Jett in a hip Hollywood clothing store circa 1975. "I want what he's wearing" she says to the bemused clerk, pointing at a too-cool-for-school male patron. She dumps a pile of saved-up change on the counter, and walks away with a studded leather jacket. We see Cherie Curry leaving her high school classmates speechless as she gets on stage for a school talent show, and, with streaks of red and blue makeup on her face, covers David Bowie in a full-on glam-rock spectacle. We see Joan Jett taking a guitar lesson - her instructor tells her that girls don't really play guitar, let alone electric. But Joan doesn't care. She plugs into her amp and wails, channelling the rock n' roll gods with each thrash of the strings. There's one scene late in the movie that kind of bookends that initial setup. Joan is at the end of her rope. The Runaways, after having blown up , after becoming icons and sex symbols, have broken up - their lead singer out of the music biz. Joan has fallen in with a bad crowd. She's messed up and strung out. But she puts her head down, grits her teeth, and remembers that it was supposed to be about the music and not everything else. She writes lyrics. She sings. She plays. And she jumps up on her bed, screaming out lyrics as a lightning bolt of divine (or satanic?) inspiration hits her in the form of "I Love Rock n' Roll." It's an amazing sequence - it gave me chills. And it convinced me that The Runaways, as a movie, was the real deal.
Part of what makes things work so well are the kickass performances in the movie. I know some people tend to dismiss Kristen Stewart, but they shouldn't. She may not be someone who can play any role, and she may have little tics and quirks that find their way into a lot of her movies. But ... the girl can act, and she does an awesome job here as Joan Jett. This was a part that Stewart may well have been born to play, and she knocks it out of the park. The toughness, the pent-up anger, the sadness, the willpower of Joan Jett - it's all here, and Stewart is completely compelling in the role. Meanwhile, I think this is the movie that propels Dakota Fanning into the next stage of her career. Sure, she was already a remarkable child actress, but now it's safe to say that she's a remarkable adult actress. Well, almost. Sixteen-year-old Fanning is a powerhouse as troubled singer Cherie Currie, but her playing Currie is also a clever bit of stunt casting. The fact that we've seen Fanning grow up on screen makes the sexuality and exploitative nature of Currie's jailbait persona that much more real and unsettling. And it makes her descent into drug use and other vices that much more disturbing. But Stewart and Fanning are both stellar - definitely two of the best performances so far this year, from two actresses who I think will soon be in the conversation as two of the best of their generation.
The other real standout here is Michael Shannon, as the group's hotshot Hollywood-scenester manager, Kim Fowley. Shannon is a total scene stealer, both funny and menacing as the man with the vision of an in-your-face girl group that could rock harder and louder than any of their male counterparts. Fowley's rock bootcamp sessions with the girls are a lot of fun - he transforms Cherrie Currie into a snarling frontwoman, and insists that the girls rock with reckless abandon.
I also really enjoyed the overall look and feel of the film, courtesy of director Floria Sigismondi. At times it's more straightforward, but as the girls descend into the abyss, the movie takes on a hellish, dizzying, almost surreal vibe, full of sex (much of it between the various girls in the band), drugs, and rock n' roll. It's like a great powerballad that starts out slowly but eventually erupts in a sea of noise. Sigismondi also does a great job of highlighting the music - tracks from The Runaways, Joan Jett, and other acts that evoke the time and the rock n' roll spirit of the movie. And Stewart, Fanning, and the rest of the cast does a surprisingly great job of covering some of the classic tunes as well. They really rock, and both actresses seem to channel the spirits of the women they're portraying. I can say that after seeing the movie, songs like "Cherry Bomb" and "Crimson & Clover" have been on constant replay in my head. If you already love the music, I think you'll be appreciative of how it's used in the film. If you don't, I think you'll be heading home and burning a mix CD pronto. And by the way - give credit to the movie's costume designers and others who establish the grimy 70's Los Angeles setting. The movie really does transport you to that era, feathered hair and all.
I think the main thing that bugged me about the movie is going to be the most common complaint from audiences - it just seems a little lopsided in terms of how it tells its story and who it chooses to focus on. Obviously, the spotlight is shone on Jett and Currie, but other Runaways members like Lita Ford and Sandy West seem somewhat unfairly ignored. I know there were a lot of issues around approvals and such, but still. Lita Ford went on to become something of a rock icon in her own right, so it would have been interesting to see more of her story. And just this week, LA Weekly ran a great article on the tumultuous life and tragic death of drummer Sandy West. Oddly, Ford and West don't even get post-scripts in the film (Jett, Currie, and Fowley do), so I didn't even realize she had passed away until I read the LA Weekly article. It also seems a shame to have some talented actresses in the cast (like Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) who barely get a word of dialogue in. Again, I understand that the focus was kept on Stewart and Fanning, but it would have added to the film, I think, to flesh out some of the other characters a bit more.
Still, The Runaways left its mark on me. It really impressed me, pumped me up, and had me ready to rock. I love the music, I love this period of rock history, and hey, who doesn't love all-girl rock bands? The movie is dirty, grimy, and revels, to an extent, in self-conscious exploitation. But that is sort of the point. It's edgy and uncomfortable, a teenage wasteland of raging hormones and a burning desire to rock. The movie captures that sense of rebellion and attitude, that sense of danger. But I loved its overall message - that someone like Joan Jett rose above all that noise, and by sheer force of will, carved out her own niche and did things her way, paving the way for countless others to follow. There's a message of girl-power there, sure, although it's more than that. It's a lesson in perseverance, a tale of tragedy and triumph, and a modern day-fable for anyone who's ever wanted to be (even a little bit) rock n' roll.
My Grade: A-