SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 19, 2010
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writer: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Michael Shannon
A splatter of menstrual blood hits the pavement. The blood came from Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), so she and her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough) scramble to deal with Cherie’s unprepared for period in the restroom of a fast food restaurant. Next thing we know, Cherie is lacing on a pair of platform shoes and she transforms herself into a glamourific lady stardust. (Apparently, Cherie worships at the Alter of Bowie – she even lip syncs “Lady Grinning Soul” in full-on Aladdin Sane make-up at her high school talent show.)
Separately, we are introduced to Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) during a transformational moment in her life – when she acquired her first leather jacket. Minutes later, she is huffing out of a bag and kissing a girl. Then she plugs in her electric guitar during a guitar lesson at school (an act that does not go over well with her teacher because…electric guitars are for boys!). Joan loves rock and roll (especially Suzi Quatro) so put another dime in the jukebox baby…
One night at the local glam rock club, Joan approaches a semi-famous record producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) – Kim had, by this time, co-produced the Modern Lovers debut LP and co-written songs for KISS, Alice Cooper, and Kris Kristofferson (Fowley also recorded his own far out material in the late 1960s, such as “The Trip” and “Animal Man”). Kim immediately calls Joan’s bluff; but he is intrigued enough by the intensity in Joan’s eyes and her plan to start an all-girl rock band that he decides to introduce her to a girl drummer, Sandy (Stella Maeve).
Joan and Sandy practice as a twosome long enough to convince Kim that they have ambition and talent. They are soon joined by guitarist Lita (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin (Alia Shawkat); and they move their jam sessions to a dilapidated trailer park. (Music history buffs will probably know that The Runaways never had a bassist named Robin – they actually had six different bass players, including Joan Jett for a brief period.) Then, Kim notices Cherie (whom Joan had ogled from across the dance floor as well) and recruits her to be the band’s singer. (Kim was not all that dissimilar from Malcolm McLaren here – style and publicity were at the forefront of his management style.)
The time that we spend in the trailer park with Kim and The Runaways is definitely the highlight of the film. Kim toughens the girls up by hurling sexually-tinged verbal abuse at them (there are rumors that Kim was physically abusive to the girls as well, but The Runaways opts not go there); he even enlists a bunch of boys to hurl trash at them during rehearsals. For someone interested in music history, witnessing the creation of some of The Runaways’ songs (no matter how Hollywoodified) is a rare treat.
From here on out, The Runaways has a difficult time dealing with its inherent bipolar disorder: does it want to be a rock and roll movie (but with young girls brimming with teen angst and steamy bisexual libidos) or focus on Cherie’s family drama and her personal struggle with drugs and alcohol (the film is partially based on lead-singer Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story). The Runaways opts to spend a significant amount of time with Cherie – unfortunately forcing Joan to the sidelines for large chunks of screen time (the other three Runaways combined don’t have a page’s worth of dialogue) – though it curiously steers clear of her abortion.
Michael Shannon’s performance as Kim (who has all of the best lines!) is unmatched. This is a role that could have very easily been miscast, but after watching Shannon’s portrayal of Kim I could imagine no one else in this role. And it is nice to see Stewart’s acting range expand as she is finally given more to do than what she has come to perfect (brooding and pouting). Compared to Fanning (who was fine), Stewart deserves much more of the limelight – perhaps that will happen if there’s ever a sequel called Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. (I foresee a franchise here: a Lita Ford bio-pic titled Kiss Me Deadly and a bio-pic on The Bangles [which featured The Runaways’ first bassist, Micki Steele]).
As a time capsule, The Runaways (writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s first feature film) works really well. The strength of The Runaways is, not surprisingly, the music (Sigismondi’s resume includes directing music videos for David Bowie and Marilyn Manson and directing commercials for Old Navy and Adidas); though the borderline-kitschy set and costume design is fun and the grainy cinematography (reminiscent of Lee Daniel’s work on Dazed and Confused – which featured The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” on its soundtrack) works well too. Then again, I have a weak spot for early-70s glam rock and mid to late-70s punk rock and the style/fashion that went along with those movements.
Along with The Slits (formed in 1976) and Kleenex/LiLiPUT (1978 to 1983), The Runaways (1975 – 1979) brought some much needed girl power into the rock arenas. Who knows if the The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, L7, Babes in Toyland, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Sahara Hotnights, Electrelane, Tegan & Sara, Erase Errata, The Donnas, and hundreds of other all-girl rock bands would have ever come into being without The Runaways paving the way and shattering the proverbial glass ceiling?