The Runaways, at its best, is a loose biopic skittering through the life and times of the first all-girl rock band with a peripheral view of the glitter and pitfalls of the male defined music scene of the 1970s. The story is as much about chance encounters and ensuing relationships bound by music as it is about the aspirations and dreams of young girls. We get from the opening scene that this is a story of female awakening and empowerment, but lurking behind every corner, behind every perfect smile and too good to be true record contract is a man-like devil figure with an agenda of his own. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this film, the characters are familiar misfits and outcasts, oddballs who want to play rock n’ roll against the norm when the closest female musicians got to playing was folk music. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi wisely made the focus Cheri Currie (Dakota Fanning) though for some this seemed odd given Joan Jett’s more wide-spread notoriety. For those of you wondering, Jett still performs to this day and is credited as the first female musician of any genre to start her own record label. She’s also the executive producer of this film. Sigismondi wrote the script inspired by Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, which is purported to contain a much darker, drug addled account of the bands humble, often tumultuous beginning but this, like much of the edgier material in the film is kept off the screen.
Sometimes subtle, occasionally in your face performance and believable emotions make this film worth the price of admission, especially Fanning and Shannon who demand your attention in nearly every scene. These very notable performances by Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Michael Shannon (Reservation Road) as the foul-mouthed, electric record producer Kim Fowley elevate the film and make it approachable and at times even fun. Fowley immediately harkens another record producer in recent memory, though his figurative doppelganger, Louis Jay “Lou” Pearlman who created Backstreet Boys and NSYNC hasn’t a wink of Fowley’s personality. Where the film seems to meander and thus lose important ground is that it never truly takes advantage of the seedier side of these girls’ lives and their struggle to be taken seriously. Watching the rise of a teenage, all-girl rock band thrown into the figurative trial by fire cesspool of dive bars and backyard barbeques might have proven fertile and even provocative, yet this period is sketchy and tepid as though Sigismondi thought the subject enough without resorting to the kind of debauchery found in similar music biopics. The film received an R rating but it hardly seems necessary. Oh there are occasional references to a sexual relationship between Currie and Jett, and even several on-screen kisses to which they won an MTV award for Best Kiss, ridiculously enough. There are repeated references to and scenes of using drugs but no aggrandized for effect or romanticized with drawn out montage accompanied by a chic 70s drug score. I for one would have preferred to find more grit, more danger in the transformational first act as the girls changed from white trash nobodies into sexually charged rock goddesses. In this telling the danger is painted on, always at arm’s length, and the hungry maul of degenerate male audiences eagerly waiting to throw bottles, dog feces or whatever projectile within reach is lost in a purposefully gloomy, dungeon like space better alluded to than addressed in a satisfactory way. Perhaps the real story is yet to be told or maybe, in the hands of Sigismondi the images tell the story where words cannot and characters, sadly are left to their own devices as objects instead of living, breathing, and yes, at times, dying by their own hands human beings that cannot simply be contained by the edge of a photograph or the space of a dog-eared album cover.
Writer-Director Floria Sigismondi, a photographer and music video director (Marilyn Manson among other notable clients) wisely keeps the focus of her first feature moving so as to avoid becoming yet another parable on the inherent dangers of drugs, money and excess on the careers of young musicians. But she never takes risks either. The film plods at times, lost in minutiae that serves neither character nor plot in meaningful ways, and ultimately proves ineffective as an examination of the band or its members. Dakota Fanning is reason enough to watch this film, her wide-eyed, naïve Cherie Currie strung out and exhausted, reaches an emotional level that is engaging and equal to peers twice her age. Kirsten Stewart looks enough like Joan Jett to pass for the teenage tomboy wannabe rocker, though the handful of scenes where she is fumbling toward what will ultimately become her signature sound and look seem artificial and clunky. She’s believable, mostly but hardly astounds, frequently lost and gangly, not quite able to fill the shoes of the iconic Jett. Fans of Stewart will not be disappointed, though in all honesty she lacks depth and resonance, clearly outshined by Fanning. There are genuine moments between Fanning and Stewart throughout the film, the opening scene alludes to a burgeoning sense of change and development both physically as well as artistically that serves the main running board for the rest of the story. We know going in that this is a story about dreaming. The film shows us the achievement of dreams and the inevitable loss of what we hope for and for that we’re invested enough to find out what happens along the way. As with similar stories about triumph and insurmountable odds (Rudy, My Left Foot, Good Will Hunting) the journey prepares us for what will either leave us satisfied or disappointed. In the case of The Runaways, most of us going in know at least a little about these real characters and their short-lived rocket to stardom. We are able to fill in the blanks in the film for what the script, and first time director Floria Sigismondi, left out.