JETT-FUELED: "THE RUNAWAYS" MOVIE

Honestly, I hated the band The Runaways. I was 14 years old when their first LP came out and I started reading about them in 16 and CREEM and the rest of the rock/teen mags. My hopeful curiosity at seeing an all-girl rock group was very quickly replaced by disappointment and disdain for two solid reasons: they just weren’t very good, and they were incredibly sleazy. Oh lookee lookee, how scandalous – they are pushing the pedo-button. The Runaways were not selling to me, although perhaps they wanted to think that a little Midwestern girl rock fan would find them cool and liberating. The opposite was true for me, and still is: every time women in rock n’ roll make more out of selling sex than creating great music, it’s hardly edgy or revolutionary. It’s just another kind of prostitution. I am not at all saying that women in music shouldn’t be women or be sexual or be attractive, but you have to have songs, and you have to be able to play. Otherwise, go sing karaoke at the Bunny Ranch. Don’t try to tell me that wearing lingerie onstage and crotch grinds are feminism in action.

To me, the Runaways were as contrived and phony as KISS, a cartoonish joke and no more. Image was all these young girls had, as imagined by scenester/producer/manager/nutcase Kim Fowley, a man, and the band fell apart predictably and mercifully soon. So, why did I want to go to see the big-screen version of the Runaways’ story? I guess I wanted to view how Hollywood would revise their legacy 30+ years on. Would I find out something about these girls and what they went through that I didn’t already know? Would there be something to it all that would make them more sympathetic to me, or not? Would this be anything past the tired rags-to-riches-to-ruin-to-redemption production? Add in a little nostalgia jones and my need to see perfect ‘70s period detail (which is a pun, if you’ve seen the opening scene to the film) and I paid my money, got my popcorn, and settled into my seat in the theater last night.

Let’s start with what the film succeeded in completely: the casting. Getting the right people for roles, especially those based on real people, is a challenge that often fails in Hollywood. Money money money rules the day in the biz and if you think you can get an audience to even remotely buy Angelina Jolie as Marie Curie, by god, she’s hired for “Radium Took My Baby Away: The Musical.” “The Runaways” would have failed from the first moment if they had used actresses visibly older than the girls were at the time; when the band was formed in 1975 guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett turned 17, drummer Sandy West, 16, lead guitarist Lita Ford, 17, bassist Jackie Fox, 17, and lead singer Cherie Currie, 16. Instead, the producers used their budget wisely to secure the talents of some of the best young actresses available, and Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are (gasp) real-life teenagers themselves.

Stewart in particular nails her role as Joan Jett, down to her hunchbacked slouch as she plays guitar. I liked that all the actors and actresses very reasonably resembled their characters, and did a good job finding the personalities within the roles – explosive, bitter Ford, laid-back West, childish Currie, Jett as both aggressor and peacemaker. Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, ya know) did a nicely restrained turn as Marie Currie, Cherie’s twin sister, left behind to toil at a fast-food joint and take care of their alcoholic father as her sister glammed it up on the road. Tatum O’Neal as the Currie sisters' brittle, well-dressed mother who bails on them to follow a new husband to Indonesia is terribly underused – her character was potentially more interesting than both sisters’ combined.

Michael Shannon also did a pretty damn good Kim Fowley, someone who seems to have graduated from the Charles Manson School of Artist Management. To movie viewers unfamiliar with the impresario, Fowley comes off as monstrous – creepy, repulsive, with no boundaries or conscience, all for the sake of spectacle and rock and press and money in his pocket, pushing the girls to be outrageous and crude and tough. How much of Fowley is demonized is probably impossible to tell. ‘The Runaways” was based on the memoirs of Cherie Currie, and the film was produced by Joan Jett and her long-term business partner Kenny Laguna. Fowley has alluded to the whole story not being told in his recent interviews but goes no further, only reminding people that this is Currie’s view and that the film is faithful to her recollections of the time. Was he, is he, a “good guy?” Doubtful. Would the Runaways ever have made it out of a few L.A. rock dives without him? No.

Past the excellent acting work (and yes, the period detail was also good), there isn’t all that much to recommend, because just as the Runaways failed to deliver quality music, the film fails to deliver much of a story. It’s hard to feel for the characters – some treacle-y bits are laid down early on to let you know that Currie and Jett had neglectful parents, and that they both found a community in glam-rock escapism. But it isn’t enough. You expect the sleaze and grime and drug abuse and promiscuity to come pouring out of this film, with all the attendant outcomes and dramas, but past a few coke snorts, ugly abusive language spat out from Fowley, and some blurred-out lesbian sex scenes, it’s pretty bland. One has to wonder if the studio and director Floria Sigismondi had to be very conscious of the young Twilight-eyed fans that would be drawn into this film because of Stewart and Fanning, and particularly of Fanning’s age as well. The story shows how Cherie Currie was prodded to be sexually provocative and vulgar, but at what point in the portrayal are we thinking, “Wow, Dakota Fanning is 15 years old and on all fours with barely any clothes on.” Is that also exploitative, in the end? I don’t have an answer for that.

Currie’s character runs out of steam pretty quickly, which is a problem as she is the main focus for three-quarters of the film. She doesn’t come off as particularly wild or ego-crazy, nor as abrasive or harsh as she likely was. You don’t spend your early teen years hanging out on the ’70s-era Strip without seeing a whole lot of nasty stuff and adjusting your personality likewise. But Fanning portrays Currie as rather na├»ve and mildly conflicted, a bleached-blond shell, unformed and unwise, hollowed-out. She ends up doing a lot of dazed raccoon-eyed druggy baleful stares. Fanning doesn’t have, despite makeup, the well-worn look that Currie did at her age, and isn’t really given all that much to say or do. That is not at all Fanning’s fault. The fault lies in the fact that Currie isn’t a particularly interesting person. Kid from broken family in the Valley likes Bowie, is picked to sing in a band even though she can’t sing, gets into drugs, quits, gets a regular job. Oh.

The film seems to be aware of this, and shoots Jett’s character to the forefront as the band implodes. A fair estimate of Joan Jett is that she too was about image, but more about music. She was willing to pay her dues, learn how to write songs, learn how to connect with an audience, and figure out how to not get used up and spat out like so many others. In the film we see her thinking about lyrics in the bathtub, slamming out power chords in her underwear on a mattress on the floor, and then voila! She’s getting interviewed as a solo success by Rodney Bingenheimer, and Cherie Currie’s phoning in from her job as a sales clerk, just to say “hi.” The movie ends on Jett’s triumph in the rock business, playing her solo music over the credits, with a still frame of Currie’s face sentimentally smiling as she folds napkins at a store.

In a text epilogue, we are told that Jett’s first solo record was rejected by 23 record companies but ended up selling 10 million copies, that Kim Fowley also worked with Helen Reddy and now has green hair and walks with a cane, and that Cherie Currie grew up to help other teens with addictions and became a “chainsaw artist.” It is a very obvious flip-off to the rest of the members of the Runaways that their stories weren’t even worth updating, even though Lita Ford went onto a very high-profile heavy metal career, Jackie Fox graduated from Harvard Law, and Sandy West, who remained close to Currie and Jett, died of cancer in 2006. Ouch.

If the point of “The Runaways” was to convince me and everyone else that the girls were some kind of vitally-important proto-punk pioneers, causing young ladies everywhere to pick up electric guitars and commence shredding in their Frederick’s of Hollywood gear in the name of equal rights in rock n’ roll, it didn’t. It’s no coming-of-age story, as no one seems to grow up in the least or experiences any kind of powerful revelations, other than refusing to sing in the studio one day. It doesn’t mention that the Runaways continued on for two more years after Currie’s departure, or that Currie ended up working with Fowley again, this time on a record with her sister Marie. What I saw in the film was essentially the same as what I saw back in 1976 – a bunch of teenagers that were so-so musicians being manipulated by men, for men. Would any of the Runaways wish the same “legacy” on their own daughters? I hope not.

I started playing guitar in 1976, partially inspired by the thought that if some dumbass dude classmate of mine in junior high could do it, so could I. I wasn’t looking to brand myself as some great “chick player,” wasn’t into the novelty aspect, didn’t give a crap if people thought that girls shouldn’t and couldn’t play rock n’ roll…and most folks did think exactly that. I played because I loved to play, and that was more than enough reward to keep going. There is no gender to a great melody or a crashing chord or a snapping snare drum. There wasn’t anything I wanted to take as an example from the Runaways, other than What Not To Do.

Joan Jett and Cherie Currie’s spin, filtered through the expensive lens of Hollywood filmmaking, seems to want to leave the audience fired up with Grrl Power, when the opposite was true. The band was powerless – too young, too dumb, too hungry for promised fame and money to escape being pimped out and consumed by wolves, with no family ever coming to the rescue or questioning what in the hell was going on. There’s nothing to celebrate there. Great casting doesn’t change the fact that “The Runaways” cops out in many ways – it’s not filthy enough, not honest enough, and doesn’t convince me that the band was anything more than a minor blip on rock radar, despite shots of screaming Japanese fans. It wasn’t really an important story to tell, just a re-scripting of the Oldest Profession in the World, with a Les Paul guitar, platform boots, and glitter eyeshadow.