March 7, 2012

The Runaways (2010)

 (Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett in The Runaways.)

In an early scene in The Runaways, a stuffy, balding guitar teacher tells a teenage Joan Jett, “Girls can't play guitars." It's a line that’s begging to be refuted, and The Runaways proceeds to do so in irreverent fashion. Charting the formation of the band, their career highs, and their dissolution, writer and director Flora Sigismondi's defiant film seems to answer the unspoken comment, "A woman can't direct a (rock and roll) film". But who else but a woman could tell the sordid story of The Runaways, the first all-girl teenage rock band, and do it justice?

(Michael Shannon as their shady producer Kim Fowley.)

From the first shot in the film, in which we see a drop of blood drop on pavement, Sigismondi, in her film directing debut, shows grit and perceptiveness in equal measure. This is no simpleminded ode to girl power, or a celebration of hedonistic excesses. The film never forgets that despite the attention and the success The Runaways had, it was never their world to claim. From their opportunistic manager (Michael Shannon, whose ill-suited glam-rock gear only serves to heighten how shady he is), the derisive male bands they encounter on the road, and the media, who can't help salivating over the five teenage girls, they were forever being cut down to size. The girls didn't respond by bonding together and bucking the odds. Instead, they imploded in a haze of sex, drugs, and jealousy. 

(Dakota Fanning in an Alice in Wonderland-like shot.)

Fanning is essentially miscast as 16-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie, the supposedly inimitable Cherry Bomb. I wasn’t around when The Runaways were big, but one look at their live Cherry Bomb video and you see the unavoidable truth: Fanning can never be that girl. The real Cherie Currie looks mean, hard, and tough. While no great singer, she commands the stage as she bellows out her lines, forcing you to pay attention. Fanning is too pretty, too slight, too obviously loved to provide the scrappy authority that Currie had. 15 years old when the film was shot, she was technically the right age for the role, but then again Currie looks like she skipped being a teenager altogether. With the nymph-like Fanning at the center, the band in the film looks more palatable, more easily salable than the real Runaways.

(Kristen Stewart, perfectly cast as Joan Jett.)

As ill a choice as is Fanning for Currie, Kristen Stewart on the other hand is a perfect fit as Joan Jett. It's a rare role in which her tomboy, too-cool-for-school tics mesh naturally with the character. Androgynous and insouciant, she swaggers through the film with authority. Though the film is based on Currie's autobiography, Jett is portrayed positively as the one who is in it for the music. (Her flings with other teenage girls are treated nonchalantly.) When the shit hits the fan and the band threatens to fall apart, Jett keeps her head down and continues to play her guitar. We end up cheering on Jett (authentic musician) as Currie (manufactured star) fades into obscurity. 

(LA as a wasteland: Cherie walks through a supermarket parking lot overgrown with weeds.)

The Runaways has a certain looseness, eschewing the standard "track all your highs and lows" biopic format. We get the overall picture through stray scenes: Joan Jett dumping all her change onto a counter to buy a man's leather jacket, the band being pelted with debris by neighborhood boys as they practice in their trailer, Cherie talking to her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough) as her father takes a drink in the background. Late 70s southern California, rendered through garish primary colors, looks like a grimy wasteland, betraying the vulnerable environment the girls were in. 

The film doesn't purport to tell the whole story -- Jackie Fox, The Runaways' bassist, refused to be portrayed, resulting in an indistinct character played by Alia Shawkat. (Stella Maeve plays the drummer Sandy West, Scout-Taylor Compton plays lead guitarist Lita Ford. Both leave a strong impression despite their lack of screen time.) Meanwhile, the real-life members were the focus of Edgeplay, a 2004 documentary, sans Jett, who refused to participate. The Runaways didn't necessarily make me want to discover their music, but it did make me want to learn about what these fearless women went on to do in their lives. 

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