Lock up your daughters—and your sons! The Runaways goes out of its way to show just how R-rated ugly the making—and destruction—of the first all-girl rock band was. But its glue-huffing, sun-drenched, punk-rock swagger is propelled by the music and anchored by fine performances from Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, and Michael Shannon.
This spring The Runaways was caught up in an of-the-moment marketing conundrum. The very indie film was packaged to cash in on the Twilight heat of co-stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, when in fact the movie itself is about young women rockers fighting to break free of commercial exploitation. On screen here Stewart and Fanning are all but clawing their way free of their family friendly cages.
Because—and let’s make this very, very clear—this ain’t no family friendly film. The Runaways doesn’t just set out to document the rise (and of course inevitable fall) of what was the first true all-girl rock band. It also wants to replicate every bit of raw verve and sleazy rock ‘n’ roll kick that propelled the group and the punk movement of the mid-‘70s—including the desperate ambition and willingness to package and sell provocation as a commodity.
The film from writer-director Floria Sigismondi chronicles the creation of The Runaways in 1975 by glam-rock reptile Kim Fowley (Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon in yet another brilliant turn). The group came together as a novelty act—its carnival hook was young Southern California girls aggressively selling their sexuality (“jailbait” was embraced as a mantra) while kicking out angry, sneering punk rock. There’s not a lot of new territory covered here in terms of plot or theme: Lonely outcasts come together, the music catches fire, struggles (including the usual road antics) eventually lead to success, and success naturally bring on the drugs, egos, musical clashes, and self-destruction.
But The Runaways does a terrific job of nailing its points: First that punk’s stripping away of any sort of pretension or ethos meant it paradoxically embraced both raw rock truth and the packaging and selling of that honesty. And second, that women rockers could be just as vulgar, switchblade tough, and swaggering as the boys.
As Joan Jett (the Runaways’ black-leather musical force) and Cherie Currie (the strutting pin-up front woman), Stewart and Fanning perfectly capture that mysterious rock alchemy whereby insecure performers take every bit of their shy uncertainty and burn it away on stage in an “Ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb” explosion of posing, posturing sexual bravado. Which of course is what male rock stars from Berry and Elvis to Jagger and Bowie had always done.
Stewart’s Jett sulks and slumps, so full of angry frustration she’s about to burst, while whatever remained of Fanning the knowing child actor completely vanishes under Currie’s veil of surfaces and lies. (Lost and numb, Cherie’s searching for the right mask to wear—at first it’s Bowie’s Aladdin Sane glam, later it’s sleazecake lingerie, finally it’s drugs.) It’d be easy to dismiss Stewart and Fanning’s performances as wallowing in lazy, apathetic hedonism–both characters wear a half-lidded lethargy to hide their ambitions. Except the actresses are acutely tuned into layers of broken-home pain and denial—they are simultaneously scared little girls playing rock and roll dress up and fearless in-your-face rock stars.
(The rest of the Runaways included heavy metal ladies in waiting drummer Sandy West [Stella Maeve], lead guitarist Lita Ford [Scout Taylor-Compton], and a rotating roster of bassists, here represented in total and in passing by Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat as the fictional composite “Robin.”)
And Shannon gives the band members and the film something to kick against. Shannon growls right up to the edge of self-parody, knowing that Fowley himself was a performance too: the Frankenstein godchild of Col. Tom Parker and Ziggy Stardust, a deviant con man happy to use and exploit anyone and then turn his capitalist-anarchist amorality into part of the art.
As a film, The Runaways can sometimes be a little too on the “girls don’t play electric guitars!” nose, and like its characters, it comes off a very pleased by its in-your-face transgressions. (In addition to the non-stop vulgarity, there’s plenty of attention paid to all sorts of provocative behavior.) But Sigismondi drenches it all in a washed-out California post-hippie drug-haze punctuated by a Punk’s Greatest Hits soundtrack.
Perhaps The Runaways’ greatest achievement is that it finds a line through all the posing shock tactics to wind up somewhere vaguely positive on the other side. Despite being Big in Japan, The Runaways were dismissed stateside as a sexualized marketing gimmick—it wasn’t until after their disintegration that people appreciated them as a true musical force and cultural inspiration. (Cue the film’s repeated allusions to Vincent Van Gogh.) The Runaways captures all that punk angst and desperate posing and, like rock itself, uses the music to make all the frustrating, off-putting contradictions work–to find a sort of empowerment in the exploitation.