Film Review: The Runaways

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“I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation”

(The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi, USA, 2010, 106 mins)

Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) are provocative teenage girls in misogynist times. Both want to challenge gender norms, and idolise musicians who dispute the status quo.

Cherie introduces herself, after a menstrual mishap, with a high school talent show performance as David Bowie – an arresting and elegant routine concluded, amid jeers, with Fanning flipping the bird. Surely part of the objective in casting Dakota Fanning was to articulate the gradual corruption of her character: the progression from a famously recognisable face of innocence and purity to something crippled and despoiled is seamless; the joint is sewn up in several dreamlike scenes of performance and indulgence, sexual and narcotic. It is through musical performance that her self-assertion and, sadly, sexual commodification are fertilised. Her implicit corruptibility precipitates a spiral of self-destructive behaviours that lead ultimately to the band’s disintegration.

Jett appears in a night-club full of stereotypically effeminate girls and leather-clad bad boys; it’s clear which swagger she prefers. Her puerile beau idly claims that “girls don’t play electric guitars” – but she has the look, the attitude, not to mention a compelling script and polished direction to back her up. The character is inescapably sympathetic: a heroine refusing the sexual politics of 1975, standing to principles yet still running wild. Stewart, as the burgeoning Jett, has a voice. But is it the right voice?

‘The Runaways’ is a film preoccupied with the manufacturing of stars. The devilish impresario who fabricates The Runaways is played incomparably by Michael Shannon. A near award-winner for supporting work in Revolutionary Road, Shannon has also taken up a long series of fringe projects, showcasing his perverse genius as a character actor (from the understated grizzly bear private dick of The Missing Person to a deranged, homicidal schizophrenic in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?). Here, Shannon reveals an incorrigible extroverted aspect as Kim Fowley, a camp fiend. His glam-rock affectation and sensitivity to subtle connections between the girls are cast against a derogatory heterosexuality and acquiescence to the brute market forces that determine his charges’ fate.

The film often tangibly lacks a sense of drama, and events like The Runaways’ discovery by Fowley, and their first show, come across as non-events – perhaps writer/director Floria Sigismondi intended to fashion a counter-historicist account, refusing to privilege specific moments as causal lynchpins. This is unlikely given the three obvious acts, requisite turning points – a paint-by-numbers classical plot structure. Whatever the reason, moment and excitement seem reserved for the musical sequences – a fashionable trope culled from musicals and made current by Glee.

Perhaps most critical to the success or failure of ‘The Runaways’, therefore, is the reinterpretation of their music. Incidentally, most great music biopics depend heavily on actors who can pull off a successful translation of the songs, carry a tune and articulate their inspiration to the screen (consider the success of Control, Walk The Line, La Vie en Rose or Ray). This is all the more important given the film’s structural dependence on fantastical musical cutaways. Sigismondi, an established Italian music video director, is arguably up to the task. However, her skills lie on the side of style rather than substance, and exacerbate the dramatic drought.

Perhaps Sigismondi can blame her source material. She adapted the autobiography of Cherie Currie, which one can safely assume lacks the acuity of insight and uniquely personal quality of, say, Deborah Curtis’s book ‘Touching From a Distance’ (the inspiration for Control, which also happened to have been the feature debut of a music video director – in that case, a master of the form – Anton Corbijn). What alchemy can Fanning and Stewart work, then, in The Runaways’ musical sequences?

We watch Fowley coach a voice out of Fanning’s Cherie Currie, newly named and dubbed “jailbait”. When first singing ‘Cherry Bomb’, her voice is truly cringe-worthy, but this seems to be intentional, and by their first gig it transforms into something convincing. The first truly expressionist scene is an erotic interlude under red lights between Currie and Stewart (one for the boys and the girls) set to ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by The Stooges – far from subtle, but it steps the film up a gear. Consider it the first of several nihilistic, resolutely anti-Glee set-pieces that will delight any cynic.

When Currie again delivers ‘Cherry Bomb’, near the start of a flabby second act, the boldness of stylistic choices and subtle development of Currie’s vocals pay off – even without her trademark corset, there is no doubt she has become a mercenary sexual product. However hard the story tries, it’s really misé en scène that conveys how integral to the music business is abuse of its performers. On the one hand, hackneyed scenes of Currie’s domestic dysfunction play out. On the other, the balmy, lewd tableaux of her descent into sexual and opiate decadence bring her  sophistication into sharp focus.

Ultimately, the film is more than the sum of its parts. All credit is due to Sigismondi and Fanning – not to mention the well-cast Stewart. The Runaways is one to watch in the cinema, where its potent musical affect has greatest impact. It’s certainly not just for fans of Joan Jett, though they won’t be disappointed. A limited release is still current in a few select London theatres.

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