Page to Screen: The Runaways (2010)

The Runaways
based on
Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by Cherie Currie

It’s always when I’m dragging my feet about watching films based on books that I end up accidentally watching them. I’ve been playing catch and release with The Runaways for almost a month, having to return it and immediately check it back it at one point. I’m not even sure why I wanted to see it so badly, after reading my big book of rock history and hurling myself into the depths of the Electric Light Orchestra. (Violins in rock music make me swoon.) I like Jett fine and knew little to nothing about the Runaways themselves, but I just wanted to hold onto it until I was in the right mood to watch it.

The Runaways opens in 1975 in southern California. Cherie Currie is a fifteen year old Bowie worshipper who dreams of rock stardom; the slightly older Joan Jett wants to swagger, wear leather, and play electric guitar like Suzi Quatro and her other rock idols, but finds herself butting up against a world not yet ready for a female rocker so raw. When Joan stumbles across music producer Kim Fowley at a club, she convinces him that her vision of an all-female rock band has legs, and he puts her together with Sandy West, a drummer. The two click professionally right away, but Fowley decides that they need a blonde bombshell and recruits Currie. When finally assembled (with Lita Ford and Robin, a fictional character standing in for Jackie Fox, who refused to be part of the picture), the Runaways, with their hard rock and jailbait image, become a sensation—in Japan, but a sensation nonetheless. But Cherie finds the demands of the rock star life and Fowley’s increasing abuse draining, and, on her downward spiral, takes the band with her.

The first I heard of The Runaways (the film, not the band) was when Kristen Stewart was cast as Joan Jett. There was also a bit made of the fact that Fanning was cast as Currie, but more so towards Stewart. And, honestly, I feel that’s a bit unfair, especially since it’s mostly because of her involvement with the Twilight franchise. Stewart is actually quite a good actress—she merely has a limited range, a la Nicolas Cage. But whereas Cage is often cast in parts that he then contorts to fit within his parameters, Stewart, to the best of my knowledge, is often cast in roles that play to her strengths. (I have not seen Snow White and the Huntsman, nor do I plan to.) Her mumbly, lip-biting, swaggering, boyish strengths. I don’t know enough about Joan Jett to compare Stewart to the original, but the film feels comfortable enough to play Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” over Stewart herself, and it feels right. Late in the film, there’s a scene where Joan, inspired to start her own rock band, kicks partygoers out of her place, and Stewart manages the right mix of passion, clear focus, and, of course, snarl that makes her work as Joan.

But the film is flawed. And it starts off so strong, too—I mean, the fact alone that it opens on menstrual blood made me sit up and pay attention. But I found my attention wandering, just like the script. Despite focusing only on the Runaways from their beginning to their dissolution, the film can’t quite decide if it wants to be about Currie, Jett, or their relationship. Watching Currie find determined and almost obsessive hope in rock is fascinating, but it’s hard to sympathize with her; it’s easier to root for swaggering Jett, but we just don’t get any proper character development for her, let alone anyone else; and the sexual experimentation of their relationship seems played for exploitation instead of sincerity. (I assume if the menstrual blood doesn’t scare you off, you will not be phased by Kristen Stewart kissing girls.) Without the structure of the traditional music biopic to cling to, it’d be quite formless indeed, just a collection of pretty, epoch-evoking scenes strung together.

Of course, it has its strengths—Stewart as Jett, the way the seventies are captured in a way that communicates its vibe instead of shorthanding it, which can be a problem when your target audience may not have lived through the seventies, and Michael Shannon as Fowley, their producer. Shannon captures Fowley as an increasingly eccentric, cynical, and vulgar man, taking Jett’s idea and exploiting the band members’ sexuality and inexperience to create a commercial product instead of a real band, which is the central conflict between the girls and Fowley. But overall, it just sort of happens. It’s sliding off my brain already.

Bottom line: Despite a strong performance from Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and its effortless capture of the seventies on film, the unfocussed The Runaways lacks proper character development and only the way it clings to the traditional structure of a music biopic gives it any shape. Eh.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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