“The Runaways,” Floria Sigismondi‘s biopic about the sexually-charged 1970s jailbait grrrl punk band of the same name, is a frustrating affair. While it’s certainly a hoot to see young it-girls Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart playing rock icons Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, and rock fans and historians may find it enjoyable to see Rodney Bingenheimer‘s L.A. Club in its heyday, the film entire feels like a usual, pat, cliche-ridden musical rock-doc that is more interested in documentation than saying anything about the significance of The Runaways. What starts as an interesting jumping-off point – i.e. teenage girls behaving badly, taking drugs and having copious amounts of sex with one another, and eventually becoming famous because of it – saunters quickly into rock ‘n’ roll biopic familiarity. It turns out the only driving forces behind The Runaways was a collection of unresolved daddy issues, angsty lesbian drama, and callow, adolescent ego conflicts. “The Runaways” is watchable, but I wish the screenwriter or the director had taken some time to put the band in some kind of important historical conflict, rather than just banking on the audience’s familiarity with the name.
But few people, I think, wanted to make this film as an important historical document of The Runaways, as it seems the stunt casting was where the film pivots. We don’t want to see deep into the mind of Joan Jett, we want to see Kristen Stewart, so famous for playing the stony-faced, fluttery teenage heroine of the “Twilight” movies, in leather pants, kissing other girls. So, then, how were the actors?
Dakota Fanning is a hugely talented young actress who seems to be making the transition through adolescence with ease and class. As Cherie Currie, we get to see her need to be sexual, her need to be a rebel, her easily-read desire to become a rock ‘n’ roller. These are probably conflicts all young actors must eventually go through: when do you stop playing adorable, precocious moppets, and when do you begin toexpress the sexuality you are no doubt discovering. Look at Kirsten Dunst’s career sometime. Fanning takes us through the wringer of early teenage burnout with an aplomb that reflects more strongly upon herself than it does on Currie.
Stewart fared less well. I think she is constantly growing as an actress, and is capable of a great ole at some point in the future, but as Jett, she is a bit unreadable. Joan Jett is a five-foot, kick-ass riot gal who can knock down a team of motorcycle hoodlums with a flip of her pelvis and a well-placed guitar chord. I saw Jett recently in a 1987 Paul Schrader film called “Light of Day,” in which she essentially played herself, and while she’s not the best actress, her rock ‘n’ roll forever attitude blasted from the screen, and into the developing minds of underage lesbians the world over. Stewart does not give off this power. To be fair, Stewart did do her homework, and actually captures the look and Jett’s subtle mannerisms to a T. In the film’s first scene, she is in a clothing store with a plastic grocery bag full of change. She approaches the Suicide Girl behind the counter, points at her hunky rockabilly boyfriend, and says “dress me like him,” dumping her change onto the counter. This looks like something Jett would do, and Stewart reads the line as well as she can, but Stewart seems a little too shy to play a personality as large as Jett. But then, Jett herself is such a charismatic person, it would be hard to find anyone who could recapture the magic.
The biggest acting standout in “The Runaways,” though, comes from the terrific and underrated Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, The Runaways’ mastermind/manager. He is equal parts pervy child molester, genius businessman, flighty hedonist, and friendly neighborhood kook. The girls in the band were only along for the ride. Fowley was the one pulling the strings, and clearly trying to see how much he could get away with. Fowley never actually had sex with any of the girls, but you’ll be wondering what his intentions are in every one of his scenes. Michael Shannon has a wonderfully manic energy that he brings to all of his roles, and it was a pleasure to see it in “The Runaways.”
Aside from Currie and Jett, the film doesn’t bother to focus on any of the other girls. Scout Taylor-Compton plays Lita Ford, and is only seen as a whiner. An actress named Stella Maeve plays Sandy West, and I don’t think West was given more than a few lines, never mind that she was the one with the most tragic story, having died of lung and brain cancer after The Runaways split up.
“The Runaways” also has that one obnoxious scene that many music biopics do: that scene in which a great songwriter kind of spitballs and hums and invents on the spot a really familiar popular tune, in this case “Cherry Bomb.” No film did it better than Julien Duvivier‘s “The Great Waltz.”
So see it for the girls and for Michael Shannon. Otherwise, “The Runaways” is indeed a frustrating affair.