Bright Lights Film Journal

The Runaways Get Bio-Picked

If the brief stardom of Buddy Holly and the even briefer star of Ritchie Valens should get the Hollywood biopic treatment, then why not the first all-girl balls-out rock act? The Runaways’ story is something of stardom legend: one talented song writer/guitarist/occasional vocalist named Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West dreamed of an all-girl act; screw-loose producer Kim Fowley liked the idea enough to use his influence. It would take a part-Bardot, part-Iggy pop frontgirl to solidify the teenage act, and thus Fowley and Jett pick up Cherie Currie from a LA bar, based solely on her look.

Writer-director, and former music video maker, Floria Sigismondi chases the tale of Joan and Cherie, under the tutelage of powerful but suspect Fowley. Hence, the rising stars take flight, under wings of the genre’s requisite mentor figure. As in many rock pics before, Joan and Cherie find an escape and realize a dream life for themselves, until reality crashes the party. As portrayed by Kristen Stewart – who is wisely avoiding an early Twilight to her career – Jett appears as the rock that will remain. Never daunted, her Jett drops power chords and vocal confidence without a thought. It’s something of deep conviction in the role, and kudos go to Stewart for embodying both Jett’s confidence and physical presence. (To capture the distinct asexual-sexuality of Jett’s face is near impossible, so we can’t fault Stewart for the miss here.)

Cherie, as portrayed by Dakota Fanning, is another story. Anyone remembering the real figure will have a tough time letting the just-barely-past-tween Fanning step into the role. Think Fanning trying to fill out this frontwoman.

Fanning has brought credibility to many youthful roles, but her Cherie has a fresh face that even the young source lacked. Fanning’s delicate reticence to taking the stage plays more like a reticent performance. It’s no small feat to play a tough girl before she found her toughness, but we wonder why (aside from the funding that her “heat” brought to the project) that Sigismondi didn’t gamble on an unknown. The rest of The Runaways are performed by lesser-knowns and work much better. Though she gets brief guitar-worshiping shots of her solos, Scout Taylor-Compton’s Lita Ford gels much more. Her character’s development could have served the film well.

Michael Shannon harnesses his maniacal potential (that which nearly spilled over in Revolutionary Road) for a diverting minor role. Yet, beside the Fanning miscast, Sigismondi’s direction appears stylistically confused. The Runaways did become the ballsy act that Jett and Fowley envisioned, and the gritty-yet-glossy footage of their performance and downtime serves the content. Impressionistic, and even distorted expressionistic, interludes are both drug- and libido-driven (yes, a brief lesbo scene shows up) but sometimes there just cause. All seem way off the course, instead cribbing from Oliver Stone’s The Doors. We’re in the punk-era 70s, so let’s film it thus.

After all this, we can’t help but ask, why Cherie, anyway? It’s her life into which the film dives, while the real heart of The Runaways, and the band’s legacy, was the chick on rhythm and the eventual vocalist, after Cherie quits. The real Runaway shines on, but not in Sigismondi’s eyes. Shine on, Joan.

The Runaways is distributed by Apparition Studios; in select cities today.