When the girls got up on stage
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 9, 2010
"The Runaways," a swift, stylized coming-of-age film about the germinal 1970s all-girl rock band, begins with an audacious, punk-rock flourish, when the band's lead singer, Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, unexpectedly gets her first menstrual period. The first image of this impressionistic, pared-down movie -- so distilled and formulaic that it's almost an abstract version of the classic musical biopic -- is the fateful drop of blood as it hits the L.A. pavement.
Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, making her feature debut after a career producing music videos for Marilyn Manson, the White Stripes and others, has adapted Currie's memoir of her brief blaze of rock stardom and reduced it to its most cardinal elements. "The Runaways" compresses and condenses so much of the band's nearly five-year run that it suggests they basically had one gig together in Tokyo before breaking up in a flurry of Currie's drug abuse, troubled family life and diva temperament.
Because "The Runaways" is based on Currie's book, and because Runaways co-founder Joan Jett was a producer, it's no surprise that they claim pride of place in the movie's schematic narrative. Kristen Stewart, making the most of her hunched, hooded persona, portrays Jett as the steady, serious and most sexually liberated member of the group. (Jett at one point teaches a bandmate to have an orgasm and later has an affair with Currie, an episode Sigismondi portrays in a hazy montage of drugs, rock-and-roll and roller skates.) Fanning, whose wide-eyed, sun-kissed innocence recalls Kate Hudson's breakout performance in "Almost Famous," teeters as if on Currie's own vertiginous platform heels between little girl and grown-up, in a role that often demands seeing Currie as both simultaneously.
It's a shame that "The Runaways" is told mostly from Currie's point of view (she's the only character we see living a life outside rehearsals and performances), because it's Jett's drive and ambition that seem to have held the fragile ensemble together during its brief run and that made her a star after the Runaways broke up. She remains a cipher in a film that favors tone over characterization. (As for the rest of the Runaways, here they're relegated to background noise.) Oddly, it's band manager and producer Kim Fowley -- played by Michael Shannon in a flamboyantly foul-mouthed turn as a gender-bending Svengali -- who gets the most memorable moments in "The Runaways," spouting epigrams such as "It's not about women's lib, it's about women's libido" and "It's press, not prestige."
While Jett and Currie emerge as blurry, half-formed characters, Shannon's Fowley brings the contradictions the Runaways embodied into sharp, biting focus. Even as they upended sexist stereotypes about macho strutting and who rightly claims the symbolic phallic power of an electric guitar, they were being exploited by a Fagin-like manipulator who sought only to cash in on their jailbait poses and Currie's Lolita-like presence.
Sigismondi leaves it to viewers to decide whether the Runaways were simply a manufactured novelty act, a bold expression of female empowerment or a little bit of both. Rather than polemic or literalism, she's far more interested in -- and adept at -- capturing the time and place that gave birth to the band, the 1970s Los Angeles captured so vividly in "Boogie Nights," "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," whose subject, the rock impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, was part of the Runaways' scene. (He's played in the film by Keir O'Donnell.) At its best, "The Runaways" joins those films as a soaring, sympathetic ode to the outlaws, subversives and insurgents who occupy the edges of popular culture, making them safe for everyone else's dreams.
Contains profanity, drug use and sexual content, all involving teens.