16 April 2010
The Runaways tells the story of the 1970s all-girl rock band of the same name, but it is a man who looms largest over the action in the film. Dressed in garish '70s glam rock fashions (with makeup to boot), Michael Shannon's Kim Fowley, manager/producer/songwriter/architect of the band, stalks and prowls through the movie, dominating the screen whenever he appears.
Emotionally abusive if not physically (though at one point he brings in kids to throw trash and worse at the girls for rock 'n' roll "boot camp"), his methods are extreme, his behavior often revolting. He's being kind by his standards when he calls the girls "dogs." He's exploitative and creepy (his reaction after meeting Currie: "Jail-(expletive)-bait! Jack-(expletive)-pot!) yet somehow exudes a bizarre charisma. In that way, Shannon, nominated for an Oscar for 2008's Revolutionary Road, brings to mind Christopher Walken.
Though the movie is the story of lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who wrote the book upon which it is based (Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway), and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), Shannon's overbearing presence in it is appropriate; Fowley fulfilled the same role in the lives of the real-life Runaways during their wild, albeit brief, ride in the '70s.
Starting in 1975, we meet 15-year-old Cherie Currie, who lip-synchs to David Bowie (complete with "Aladdin Sane"-style hair and makeup) at a high school talent show, and 16-year-old Joan Jett, a street-tough sort who buys a men's leather jacket and balks when a teacher patronizingly tells her, "Girls don't play electric guitars."
After a chance meeting at an L.A. nightclub, Jett and Fowley recruit the girls who become The Runaways. They are, in addition to Currie, lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and bassist Robin Robins (Alia Shawkat). (Robins is a fictional character standing in for the multiple bassists who played with The Runaways.) With the focus on Currie and Jett, the other band members barely register.
Though the timeline feels compressed, the movie presents The Runaways' career as it was--a whirlwind, much of it told through a montage of headlines and magazine covers. They build buzz by going on tour, sign a recording contract, tour some more, get the royalty treatment from throngs of adoring bordering on maniacal fans in Japan. All the while, drug use escalates. Tension within the band, much of it spurred on by the media attention Currie receives, quickly spins out of control.
It is a bit of a jolt to see Fanning, who seemingly has spent her entire childhood on movie screens and was 15 at the time of production, snorting cocaine, kissing her female co-star and strutting around onstage in a corset and fishnet stockings. She pulls it off convincingly, and this role should open doors for her as she moves closer to adulthood.
A full performance of the sexually charged "Cherry Bomb," the band's signature song written specifically for Currie, is wisely saved for late in the film, heightening its impact.
Fanning and Stewart perform their own singing and do an admirable job; Stewart's vocal impersonation of Jett is uncanny, and she shows she can be a compelling performer when allowed to do something other than mope around a Twilight movie. Stewart is something of a revelation, full of fire and attitude but also showing the drive and professionalism that, after The Runaways' breakup, propelled Jett to a successful solo career that continues to this day.
The friendship of Currie and Jett is the heart of the movie, and the emotional climax occurs in a simple yet lovely scene in which the two do nothing more than talk to each other.
Stewart and Fanning join Shannon in a trio of wonderful performances that are the movie's greatest assets.
The screenwriter and director is Floria Sigismondi, making her feature debut after compiling a music video resume diverse enough to include such artists as David Bowie, Christina Aguilera, Sheryl Crow and Marilyn Manson. The Runaways is a typical story of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but it's told with style and energy that keep it from bogging down amid the clichés.
Greg's Grade: B+
(Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content - all involving teens. 106 minutes.)