Out today on DVD is The Runaways, the 2010 biopic of the ’70s all-girl hard rock band which included Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and Cherie Currie, on whose memoir the film is partially based. The movie deserved a better fate at the box office, but was undermined by wrongheaded marketing and an imploding distributor.
As no less a sage than famous Hollywood producer and noted philosopher Robert Evans once said, “There are three versions of the truth: yours, mine, and what actually happened.”
For better or worse, The Runaways, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, is based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s version of the truth, adapted from her book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. Because of this, former Runaways Lita Ford and Jackie Fox would have nothing to do with the film (Ford is portrayed as a screaming drama queen in the movie, and Fox, who is now a lawyer, is portrayed pseudonymously).
The Runaways’ brain trust, Joan Jett and producer/manager/father figure/svengali/Baron Von Frankenstein Kim Fowley, did cooperate with the filmmakers, and the movie is all the better for it. Yet, at its heart, it is still a coming of age story with Currie, brilliantly portrayed by Dakota Fanning, at its center. This is both a strength and weakness for the movie, for while it provides emotional grounding for the story (the scenes with sister Marie, played by Riley Keough, who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, offer a stark contrast to the rock ‘n roll excess portrayed elsewhere in the film), and some standout sequences (as when she lip synchs David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at a high school talent show), a more Rashomon-like approach might have worked better.
Kristen Stewart offers a spot-on performance as Jett, demonstrating further evidence of her range as an actress. As a character, Joan Jett is about as far from Bella Swan as is humanly possible (In Twilight, Jett would have kicked Edward’s ass, then hooked up with Alice), and the brilliant Stewart nails not only Joan’s vocal mannerisms and physicality, but her rock n’ roll heart as well. In one of the film’s best scenes, she takes revenge on the sexist pigs in the headlining band (apparently based on Canadian power trio Rush) in a novel, and very, very funny, way. Girl power, indeed.
Michael Shannon, who received an Academy Award nomination for his work in Revolutionary Road, should be an early favorite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Kim Fowley. He energizes the film in every scene in which he appears, and portrays the legendary producer/provacateur like a combination of “Darth Vader and a used car salesman,” to paraphrase Fowley himself.
Listen: The Mal Thursday Show #25: Kim Fowley’s Trainwreck a Go Go
At the after-party for the South by Southwest premiere of The Runaways, Fowley told Dakota that she had gotten off easy. “You got to play Cherie as a rock n’ roll martyr, as Joan of Arc. Imagine if you had to play her as she really was. She was Courtney Love before Courtney Love was Courtney Love.” Fanning’s eyes widened at the thought. Kristen Stewart laughed, probably having heard similar things from Joan Jett when the two worked together in preparation for the movie.
The two actresses do all of their own singing on the soundtrack, and they do an excellent job. Fowley said that “Their version of ‘California Paradise’ is better than the original.” At the Q&A after the SXSW screening, an audience member asked Fanning to sing “Cherry Bomb.” Dakota explained that she could only sing in the film because she was doing it as the character, and the idea of doing it as herself (and in front of 1200 people in the audience at the Paramount) “sort of makes me want to pass out.”
Other notable performances in the movie are given by Stella Maeve as the late Sandy West, an almost unrecognizable Tatum O’Neal as Cherie’s mother, and Keir O’Donnell, who does an uncanny impression of L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer (The Mayor of Sunset Strip).
Italian-born writer-director Sigismondi is known for her visually arresting music videos for such artists the White Stripes and Marilyn Manson, which she has described as “entropic underworlds inhabited by tortured souls and omnipotent beings.” The Runaways is an ideal choice for her debut feature, as she is able to accurately portray the rock demi-monde and the psychic pain of adolescence cross-pollinated with the pressures and excesses of stardom.
While events are compressed, conflated, and conjured in the name of dramatic license, the movie captures the spirit of the original Runaways, the “Queens of Noise.” While they never became the female Beatles that Fowley envisioned, they assaulted the gates of a male-dominated power structure and even if they ultimately failed, they blazed a trail, and made some damn good records. They came, they rocked, and they disintegrated, all in a matter of a couple of years.
That’s rock ‘n roll.