This week for Beauty in the Movies we head back to mid seventies LA to look at the beginnings of the first all girl rock band, and one of the greatest female rockers ever—Joan Jett, in The Runaways.
The Runaways opens with a drop of blood on pavement, as the camera pans up Suzi Quatro sings “Roxy Roller” and we watch blood stream down the leg of 15-year-old Cherie Currie as she gets her period for the first time. In another part of LA, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) buys her first leather jacket and is told by her teacher that “girls don’t play electric guitars” sparking her mission to form an all girl rock band. After pitching the idea to the eccentrically sleazy record producer Kim Fowley, her dream begins to take form. Fowley hooks Joan up with drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and sets out to find a lead singer. Luckily Cherie (Dakota Fanning) hangs out at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco too, and Fowley and Jett recruit her to front the band. Once they’ve added lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and (fictionalized) Bassist Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat) the Runaways are fully formed and start playing gigs.
The film is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel and it’s the story of her innocence lost. Cherie goes from refusing to sing raunchy lyrics, to taking the stage clad in skimpy lingerie and snorting coke off every available surface. Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Currie is mesmerizing, she is a wide-eyed child swept up in the hard world of rock n’ roll. If you watch the real performance of Cherry Bomb live in Japan there is something so fierce, so angry and so gritty about Cherie Curry’s performance. I remember watching it on TV when I was younger and thinking that she was almost scary, she seemed so enraged. While Fanning matches Currie’s movements and style with meticulous perfection, there is something lacking in the angst department.
Don’t get me wrong, you can read me gush about the talents of Ms. Fanning over here, but Cherie Currie had been through a lot at that age (the film leaves out her rape by her sister’s boyfriend at age 15) and it’s a hard thing to match that pissed off teen-aged energy without having been through some major trauma.
Joan Jett is awesome, and has long been a role model of mine, she even used to live in the town where I live now and that alone adds a dash of coolness to my neighborhood. I saw her in concert when I was in high school and she is an amazing performer who comes off as both tough and gracious in person. Jett really helped pave the way for female rock musicians, and in the film we see why. She is the backbone of the group, and since Kim Fowley refuses to go on tour, she keeps the band together on the road. Her goal above all else is to keep the band together, make music, and succeed—which she does.
After seeing the Twilight movies and watching Kristen Stewart awkwardly bite her lip and breathe heavily, I was ready to have a cringe-fest while watching her portray Jett, but I was really happily surprised. As a person I like Stewart, but I haven’t been all that impressed with her acting, especially since it seems like she plays the same character (which is some variation of herself) in every film. In The Runaways Stewart manages to capture the cool, bad-ass, but incredibly kind nature of Jett, which isn’t an easy feat. I would have expected her to be overly angsty or awkward, but Stewart really strikes the perfect balance and carries off the performance very convincingly.
There are some other great performances in the film, Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, Riley Keough as Cherie’s sister, Marie Currie, and a quick appearance by Tatum O’Neal as Cherie’s mom too. I would have liked to see more exploration of the friendships between the girls though, it’s obvious that Joan and Cherie are very close (and not just because they make-out), but the audience is asked to take that relationship for granted. There was a lot of buzz about the sex scene between the two and a big point was made of them being best friends which obviously is supposed to be the case in the movie, but I can’t say I felt that bond between the two. Their chemistry did seem more romantic than platonic, which is fine, but according to both Jett and Currie they were best friends as well. Fanning and Stewart seem to be close friends off-screen and in interviews with the two there is a far stronger air of friendship than the movie expresses.
This film wouldn’t have had the same impact without a female director, Floria Sigismondi (who also wrote the screenplay) adds a real tangible quality to the film. You see zits and blotchy skin, sweat, dirty hotels, and the nasty, grimy, reality of life on tour. This isn’t the 70s you’ve seen glammed up, this is the 70s in the San Fernando Valley and it’s pretty darn dingy.
Aside from the lack of back story for all the characters (which is understandable since it’s based on Curries memoir) The Runaways delivers a pitch perfect portrayal of overindulgence, teen frustration, fame and pain. I was skeptical too, but it’s definitely worth your time, especially with the great female cast and the very talented director who I sincerely hope we see more work from in the future.
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