Directed by Floria Sigismondi, who before now has worked primarily on music videos, and starring Kristin Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as the underage provocateur Cherie Currie, The Runaways seems to promise to be the antidote to Sex and the City 2. It's a woman-centric film that is conspicuously not about men. Although we haven't seen it, we're willing to bet it passes the Bechdel Test (a film with 1. at least two women, 2. who talk to each other and 3. who discuss something other than a dude). Set in 1970s California and based on Currie's memoir, The Runaways charts the growth and eventual downfall of the all-girl rock band that made Joan Jett a star. It also focuses on the commoditization of adolescent rebellion by manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and his role in the band's fame. While Joan may have been the driving force behind the music, Kim was the one who recruited Cherie to provide that "jailbait sex appeal." Kim gives voice to a certain kind of macho, hyper-sexualized feminism. "This is not about women's lib," he says. "This is about women's libido."
That statement could also describe the majority of the reviewer's reactions to the film. Many critics mentioned the girl-power message, but an equal number were fascinated (or, conversely, repulsed) by the underage lesbian sex scene between the two leads. The Runaways certainly has its flaws, but it is kept afloat by strong performances by Stewart and Fanning. Critics are undecided as to which star deserves kudos for her portrayal of the young rockers — some praise Fanning while panning Stewart for her "dead-eyed" acting, while others argue that Fanning is somehow wrong for the role (perhaps they're still recovering from her stint in Hounddog). Unfortunately, the romance between the two actresses reads as hollow and the sex scene is described as happening "in a vacuum." Sigismondi gets some of the blame for the lack of love between the two leads; critics call her out for "pulling back" and never quite going all the way with the film. However, it is fitting that the most interesting part of the movie isn't about their sexual relationship, but rather the molding and creation of two young rocker chicks by a ruthless-but-witty promoter. And we hear the music ain't bad either.
In their own words, what the critics thought.
Joan, who clearly loves Cherie (the kiss between Ms. Stewart and Ms. Fanning has become grist for talk-show chat), is also her rival and foil. Joan is the backbone of the band, and the one most able to turn Fowley's advice into a program of professional success. And Ms. Stewart, watchful and unassuming, gives the movie its spine and soul. Cherie may dazzle and appall you, but Joan is the one you root for, and the one rock 'n' roll fans of every gender and generation will identify with... The movie may be a little too tame in the end, but at its best it is just wild enough.
Shannon infuses manic life and libido into the crazy, controlling genius in caftans and in the process makes real the ego-destroying realities and unforgiving odds of making it as a band.
But every time things get interesting, like the Jett-Currie relationship, the filmmaker pulls back. So while their chemistry on stage eventually moves into the bedroom, any real sense that something more than casual sex passed between them is left untouched, which makes the breakup, when it comes, less powerful than it should have been.
Shannon is an actor of uncanny power. Oscar nominated for a role as an odd dinner guest in "Revolutionary Road" (2008), he was searing as he turned paranoid in William Friedkin's "Bug" (2006). Here he's an evil Svengali, who teaches rock 'n' roll as an assault on the audience; the girls must batter their fans into submission or admit they're losers. He's like a Marine drill sergeant: "Give me the girl. I'll give you back the man." He converts Cherie, who begins by singing passively, into a snarling tigress.
The performance abilities of the Runaways won respect. The rest was promotion and publicity. The film covers the process with visuals over a great deal of music, which helps cover an underwritten script and many questions about the characters. We learn next to nothing about anyone's home life, except for Currie, who is provided with a runaway mother (Tatum O'Neal), a loyal but resentful sister (Riley Keough) and a dying, alcoholic father (Brett Cullen). Although this man's health is important in the plot, I don't recall us ever seeing him standing up or getting a clear look at his face.
Fanning scores a knockout. And Shannon, as the "Frankenstein motherfucker," is a fireball of potent perversity. Sadly, The Runaways fades into dull predictability. Joan must wait for Cherie to screw up on drugs and sex (the make-out session between Stewart and Fanning is delicate to a fault) so she can step in and front the band. Stewart is just getting rolling when the movie ends. But face it, The Runaways is based on Neon Angel, Currie's 1989 memoir. She's the only one who gets a backstory.
Although Jett is the co–executive producer and Stewart the star, the Jett character is mostly a bystander: She stands by as "rock impresario" Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) assembles the pubescent girl band (as Malcolm McLaren assembled the Sex Pistols), then stands by some more as Currie, the group's blonde-bombshell mascot, falls apart from the drugs and sex and Fowley abuse. (The film is based on Currie's slim autobiography, published little more than a decade after the Runaways imploded.) As onetime member Victory Tischler-Blue's documentary Edgeplay makes clear, the vibe among the bandmates was never good, and since the music itself is secondary, there's not a lot to this story. The film is all externals. Shannon looks scary and stops the show with his rants, but he's too endearingly damaged, too nice, to convey the real Fowley's otherworldly creepiness. It's Fanning's movie: You can taste the ex–child actor's relish for playing "jailbait." But can she be ogled in good conscience? The taste is sweet and sour.
As Fowley, Michael Shannon looks scary and stops the show with his rants, but have you ever seen the real Fowley interviewed? His creepiness is otherworldly. Shannon, even with his formidable size and nonstop epithets, seems too lovably damaged. This is Fanning's movie, and you can taste her relish in breaking out of child-stardom with a vengeance.
But as she parades around onstage half-naked, chanting that she's a cherry bomb and striking one sexualized pose after another, you're uncomfortably aware that she's 15 years old and legally a minor. How we reconcile that fact - or can't - with the thrill of her performance gives The Runaways at least some of the present-tense electricity that the real group had onstage so long ago.
Yes, The Runaways is as filled with softcore underage lesbian sex as it is with rock-movie clichés, from the montage of rapid-fire ecstatic magazine and newspaper covers that take the group from obscurity to superstardom (in Japan, at least, where the locals have a weakness for young girls in tight pants) to the use of blurry, distorted visuals to convey Currie's ever-deteriorating mental state during the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills. Shannon plays Fowley as the P.T. Barnum of the Sunset Strip, a prankish provocateur whose tough love for his protégés looks an awful lot like emotional and verbal abuse. Shannon gives the film an unpredictable, live-wire energy, but as it staggers into its third act, Shannon more or less disappears from the proceedings, and the film focuses intently on Currie (whose memoir inspired the film) and Jett (who executive-produced). The Runaways were the first major all-girl punk band. In honor of this distinction, they're now the first major all-girl punk band to inspire a bleary, excessive, and altogether mediocre big-screen biography.
Throughout the film, which chronicles the rise and implosion of the 1970s all-girl rock band, director Floria Sigismondi reinforces the female sensibility with a studied, matter-of-fact presentation of masturbation, lesbianism, and bodily functions. Men, when they appear at all, are disappointing, like singer Cherie Currie's (Dakota Fanning) alcoholic father; creepy and controlling, like the band's manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon); or expendable, like the band's roadie and Cherie's occasional sex partner, who disappears after a handful of scenes.
You can't tell the story of the Runaways without acknowledging the way Fowley, a lecherous self-promoter, traded on the girls' jailbait appeal to sell records. But in depicting the degradations and objectifications the girls submit to on the way to their 15 minutes of top-40 fame, Sigismondi raises the question: how do you make a film about female exploitation that is not itself exploitational?
Sigismondi's evocative portrait of Currie (Dakota Fanning), Jett (Kristen Stewart), and their stage sisters is a strange bird. On the one hand, it's a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place, and boasts mesmerizing performances, including that of a tranced-out Fanning, a prickly Stewart, and an outlandish Michael Shannon as Fowley.
On the other, it adheres slavishly to the too-much, too-soon template of nearly every other music biopic. In this case, there's something awfully literal about watching the group famous for the refrain "Neon angels on the road to ruin!" as just that. And not much more.
While Stewart's Twilight fans may wonder why she isn't front and center, she clearly is the movie's spine, its agile strength. As an actress, Stewart is already strong enough to be generous with her costars. (Speaking of, watch for a same-sex kiss between the leads!) Filmed with a 1970s punk edginess by music-video director Floria Sigismondi, the movie recalls a time when a schoolteacher, refusing to give Jett a lesson she wanted, tells her, "Girls don't play electric guitar." While some things have changed, this is an anthem to those young women who wouldn't take no for an answer.