You’d have thought that having already forged a successful career in music videos for the likes of Marilyn Manson and David Bowie, a feisty little rock band biopic would be perfect material for first time feature director Floria Sigismondi, who once described her video works as “entropic underworlds inhabited by tortured souls and omnipotent beings”, and on the basis of The Runaways you’d be half right. Adapted from lead singer Cherie Currie’s own autobiography by Sigismondi herself, there’s certainly a lot to like in the story of Joan Jett’s eponymous first band.
The first half of the film is the most successful, and whilst never straying too far from the conventions of the music biopic, it’s shot with a great eye for period detail (literally in the opening shot) and anchored with some impressive performances, particularly from Dakota Fanning as Currie and Michael Shannon as the Malcolm McLaren-esque svengali figure Kim Fowley. It’s just that whilst moment to moment there’s some impressive work from all involved, there’s too much that ends up either unexplored or unexplained, resulting in a film that could have benefited from a stronger sense of focus.
Joan Jett, played by a functional yet strangely uncharismatic Kristen Stewart, enlists the help of local producer Kim Fowley to start a band. He introduces her to a drummer and the three go in search of the missing ingredient, someone “a little Bowie, a little Bardot” to serve as lead singer. Fowley believes he knows what rock audiences are crying out for, and pushes the sexualisation of this group of teenage girls to the forefront of their act, as he declaims when he first finds Currie : “Jail-fucking-bait! Jack-fucking-pot!”
Through the rough rehearsal bootcamp sessions and onto a national then international tour, the girls follow rock n roll clichés to the letter, indulging in sex and drugs and some brilliantly staged performances with abandon. In fact, the best moments of the film come from the shows themselves, highlighting the music and in-your-face attitude of the bandmates. There’s some impressive editing at work, and 70s California is subject to the usual pretty, magic-hour photography (was it always magic-hour in the 70s?). It’s not long before Shannon’s prophecy that “you bitches are gonna be bigger than the Beatles” almost comes to fruition, well at least in Japan, and so we enter the inevitable descent into drug addiction and fallouts.
Unfortunately though, it’s Jett that comes off the worst in the film. Her character is underwritten (and underplayed) and she struggles to maintain much attention in the face of the enigmatic Fanning’s more interesting character arc, with the film’s focus changing it’s direction pretty much as soon as Currie first appears on stage with the band.
It’s refreshing that we’re left to discern the filmmakers’ views on the girls’ exploitation for ourselves, for the most part quietly handled, although for a movie purporting to confront these themes, there’s an awful lot of lascivious gazing at a scantily-clad Fanning, and it seems that the very same sexualisation of the girls used to sell their records is also being used to sell this movie.
The inevitable falling out of the bandmates is rather heavy-handed, supporting characters such as Fanning’s parents come across merely as caricature (with the exception of her twin sister, nicely played by newcomer Riley Keough) and a late-introduced idea that the band were perhaps even set up to fail from the start is quickly swept aside in favour of a more conventional third act. It’s by no means a bad film, just one that with a little tightening and structural focus could have been much better, and one saved mainly by Fanning and Shannon’s performances, a cracking soundtrack and Benoit Debie’s handsome photography.
The Runaways - 2010 - 106 mins - Dir : Floria Sigismondi