Nothing like a movie to point out a hole in your music collection. The Runaways did just that. This is not the first movie to do that; Ray and Walk the Line both helped point me in new directions, not to mention the goodies found in Cadillac Records. What we have with these films is not merely visual entertainment, but tales that take you inside the music. The Runaways takes you to those early years of the Runaways, as the all-girl band taught anyone who would listen that girls can rock just as hard as the boys can.
Believe it or not, before this movie I had never heard a single Runaways song. I know, I know. That said, I have been a casual fan of both Joan Jett and Lita Ford for years. I think I am a fan now, or at least as much of a fan as a guy can be this many years after their heyday. I guess that makes me a fan of the movie too now, doesn't it? I guess it doesn't have to, but if you enjoy the music chances are you will like something about the movie.
The biopic is a genre that is notoriously hard to get right. In boiling lives down to a feature, many times the flavor is lost along the way as the story is trimmed down to its essentials. It has to be difficult deciding what should stay and what should get cut, as you run the risk of leaving behind the flavor that defines the character in favor of the big moment. Yes, the two can be finely intertwined, but they can just as easily be two vastly different things.
The Runaways is based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story written by Cherie Currie. I have not read the book but I can only imagine that it goes into a lot more detail than what made it to the screen. The film has a raw, intimate feel, but it also felt a little distant. It was like I was not getting the whole story, but rather the Cliff's Notes version. I got the main points with a little bit of flavor, but never thought I was getting the full story.
While the movie is not an in-depth journey into Runaway-land, it stands out from recent biopics, first because it is about a band and not an individual, and second because it is very entertaining in its look at the life cycle of the band. At the center of the story are the young guitarist whose goal is to prove girls can rock, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), the band's jailbait lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and their rather unbalanced manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Yes, this does cut down on Sandy West (Stella Maeve), Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Robin (Alia Shawkat who does not even have any lines), but I guess there is only so much time to spread around.
Jett is a rebellious teen who is never out of arm's reach of her guitar, and she approaches Fowley, a notorious local producer, to try and get a shot. Fowley sees the potential and seems to fall into a bed of talent, but he is missing the final piece. Enter the 15-year-old Cherie Currie. Currie is a girl who longs to rebel against her absentee mother and alcoholic father. She joins the group as a timid girl only to have Fowley draw out the anger and aggression inside her while writing the band's first hit for her audition on the spot. That song was "Cherrybomb."
Screenwriter/director Floria Sigismondi is our guide. She keeps the ball rolling, distracting us with performances and classic music as we go with the girls to their first gig, on their first tour, and on through the infighting that led to Currie's departure and the eventual dissolution of the band.
The performances are uniformly solid. Kristen Stewart shows a good amount of grit and attitude as Joan Jett. Opposite her, Dakota Fanning shows she is not the precocious tyke anymore. Fanning's Currie sells the underage sex symbol and takes to the leader role, doing whatever is asked as she struts her stuff on stage. However, outshining both of them is Michael Shannon; his Fowley is unbalanced and you never quite know what to expect from him. He has an energy that is unmatched.
While not the best biopic I have ever seen, it is an effective one. It plays fast and loose with in-depth detail while painting a vivid portrait of the times. The movie plays like a whirlwind, much like the band's rise to fame. They were charismatic women who had something to prove and did just that. While you may not know them intimately, their influence can still be felt.
It is interesting to note how much of the film focuses on Jett, Currie, Fowler, and, to a lesser extent, Sandy West. Very little time is given to Lita Ford and original bassist Jackie Fox is not even represented in the film save for the made up Robin, who has no lines whatsoever. Apparently when the project was being developed they only purchased the life rights of Jett, Currie, West, and Fowler. Lita Ford and Jackie Fox were left on the outside looking in, but it is clear that Jackie Fox (real name Jacqueline Fuchs) is not terribly thrilled with the direction the project took and the filmmakers were sufficiently scared that they did not even use her name, adding a generic bass player named Robin who never says anything.
It got to the point that Fuchs tried to have the project halted. Her efforts led to a lawsuit filed by Jett to put a stop to it. Whether or not the issue is actually over or not, I do not know. What I do know is that the relationship between the bandmates could not be any frostier. As new fan of the music and someone who enjoyed the film, it is sad that the entire band was not represented here. However, I also understand that the film was always intended to focus on Jett and Currie, who were arguably the driving force behind the band. I sympathize with Fuchs who has every right to be upset, but I also wish they would just get over it. It comes across as self-centered and selfish. It also makes me wonder how Lita Ford feels.
Bottom line. Stewart and Fanning prove a formidable duo with Shannon orchestrating their charge. The music lives on and the film encouraged me to go right out and pick some Runaways tunes. I suspect this one will have replay value, not watching for the facts so much as for the performances and the music. This is one to check out.