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"'The Runaways' lacks an anarchistic punch - an authenticity and angst so distinctive of the band's rock n' roll revolution."
 
"Both of these roles are critical to the film's success and yet, neither is able to match the energy and flamboyance of Michael Shannon's Kim Fowley."
"By regurgitating a biopic formula and delivering a rudimentary story with no back story or character development, all context is lost."
The Runaways  

Cast

Joan Jett: Kristen Stewart
Cherie Currie: Dakota Fanning
Kim Fowley: Michael Shannon
Robin: Alia Shawkat
Lita Ford: Scout Taylor-Compton
Sandy West: Stella Maeve
Marie Currie: Riley Keough
Mrs. Currie: Tatum O'Neal
Review April 2010

Long before modern acts like The Donnas, Bikini Kill, and the Plastiscines, you had The Runaways, one of the first all female rock bands comprised of guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett, vocalist/keyboardist Cherie Currie, guitarist Lita Ford, drummer Sandy West, and bassist, Jackie Fox. This is the story of their turbulent days under the firm grip of Kim Fowley, an abusive and adolescent obsessed manager, their rise to fame and fortune, the sexual abuse and exploitation, and ultimately, their downfall from the excesses of rock n' roll. Based on the book, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story, the film centers on Currie's life and involvement with the band. However, it fails to present anything new to the genre, keeping the story somewhat stale, the casting slightly askew, and many scenes without cohesion and resolve. More importantly, The Runaways lacks an anarchistic punch - an authenticity and angst so distinctive of the band's rock n' roll revolution.

Outside an L.A. night club, Joan Jett approaches local rock impresario, Kim Fowley, and tells him up front that she wants to form an all girl band and make music. Fowley, impressed with her self-confidence, pairs her up with a few other female musicians. Rehearsing out of Fowley's rundown trailer, they become known as The Runaways. And through Fowley's influence, they learn to persevere in a male dominated business. Yet, while the music is fast and fevered, something is missing. And that something is a Bridget Bardot look alike to complete Fowley's image of a jailbait band oozing with sex, drugs, and rock n' roll.

Enter Cherie Currie, a 15-year old high schooler with a David Bowie fetish. Currie encounters Fowley and Jett at a nightclub and instantly catches their eye. After brief introductions, Fowley invites her to try out with the band. Hesitant at first, Currie's audition goes from timid to tigress. And her presence leads to a new nickname, image, and song called "Cherry Bomb." Under the control of Fowley, the band turns their raw talent and sexuality into moderate success. But life on the road becomes too tough for the teenage misfits. In particular, for Currie, whose personal life unravels as a result of an overpowering drug addiction, which jeopardizes her livelihood as well as that of the band.

With rebellious songs like "Cherry Bomb," I Love Playin' with Fire," and "Born to Be Bad," The Runaways struck a chord in rock n' roll consciousness in the 70's, marking the first time an all-female band hit the charts and made a significant dent in an otherwise male dominated industry. Formed in 1975 by drummer Sandy West and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett, The Runaways exploded onto the L.A. club and party circuit under the influence of producer Kim Fowley. And in their four year run, they released four albums, became a massive success in Japan, and headlined for such acts as Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Van Halen, and The Ramones. Then, in 1978, after many disagreements over money and management, they parted ways with Fowley and suffered the departure of Cherie Currie due to drug addiction. Although Joan Jett would take over the lead vocals for the group's fourth album, "Waiting for the Night," the band would never be the same, disbanding altogether in 1979.

Coming into the film, there were immediate concerns about casting. In particular, could Twilight sensation Kristen Stewart pull off a badass original like Joan Jett? And could the precocious former child star, Dakota Fanning, redirect her innocent image into a drugged out bombshell like Cherie Currie? Unfortunately, the suspicions prove to be warranted. Soft spoken and sulking, Stewart clings onto introverted tendencies in a role that requires her to be more brash and larger than life. And Fanning fails to shake her pristine past as exemplified in Dreamer and Charlotte's Web, projecting too much of a sublime goody too shoes rather than an addict and victim of abuse.

Both of these roles are critical to the film's success and yet, neither is able to match the energy and flamboyance of Michael Shannon's Kim Fowley. As the Svengali-esque manager, Shannon is part Bowie, part sadist, and full time drill sergeant. When he goes on a tirade, boisterously encouraging the girls to come out of their shells and embrace true rock n' roll, it's an all out assault. "You dogs would be lucky to get a gig singing in the shower," he yells. "Go sell Girl Scout cookies!" For audiences, the message is clear: more intensity! But for the characters in the band, the words seem to fall on deaf ears.

The film was directed by Floria Sigismondi and it represents her feature debut after many years as a photographer and music video director for such artists as Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Sheryl Crow, Christina Aguilera, and The Cure. Here, there is definitely an aesthetic beauty at work, where soft and edgy palettes come together to create a lair of hazy and seductive night club environs. Not to mention many lasting impressions, like Joan Jett voicing "I Love Rock N' Roll" in a bath tub (as a cover) and Kim Fowley sitting in a chair that resembles a bird cage. Yet, memorable as they are, Sigismondi's focus on the glitter and glam trumps the focus on substance and story and ultimately leads the film astray.

The Runaways is based on Cherie Currie's memoirs, but one can't help think that the story would have been better served focusing on Joan Jett, a rock legend whose music is very much alive today. Instead, the film plods through familiar biopic territory - the formation of a band, the initiation into show business, the rise to stardom, the sex and drugs, and the creative differences that eventually lead to dissolution. And it only hints at Currie's home life - a resentful sister, a runaway mother, and an alcoholic father. Sure, there are unique moments as Joan Jett defies her guitar instructor, Cherie channels David Bowie, and The Runaways learn how to take criticism. But none of this really tells you anything about their background and character, what their motivations are, and why their music was so important.

Following the breakup of The Runaways in 1979, Cherie Currie went on to act in several movies and eventually released a solo LP, "Beauty's Only Skin Deep," with her twin sister Marie, which coincidentally, was produced by Kim Fowley. Unlike her band mates, Joan Jett and Lita Ford, she was unable to recapture the former glory with The Runaways. At the height of their success, no one could imagine the profound impact the band would have on the music world. Today, that picture is clear, but sadly, the film fails to capture the essence. By regurgitating a biopic formula and delivering a rudimentary story with no back story or character development, all context is lost. "I love rock n' roll," shouts Joan Jett, her fist pumping firmly in the air. But based on this interpretation of The Runaways, you wouldn't necessarily believe it.



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