Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Review: "The Runaways"
"The Runaways" is a manufactured movie about a manufactured band.
The all-girl rock 'n' roll band was a '70s gimmick designed to peddle teen sex appeal -- and yet the songs they produced ("Cherry Bomb," "Queens of Noise") have a brash energy that's hard to deny.
Similarly, the movie about them wades through every cliché of the rock biopic genre, but is still an entirely watchable and fleetingly engrossing glimpse at Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and the gang.
I say "and the gang" not because I'm trying to minimize the contributions of Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox (and several other bassists whose tenures with the band are not depicted). But since it's based on a memoir by Currie, and executive produced by Jett, it's not surprising they're in the spotlight.
Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning make for believable teen rockers who got caught up in the manipulation and excesses of the music biz. Joan (Stewart) is the purist, a tough girl who buys a man's leather jacket, spends her idle days huffing to get high, and refuses to accept a music teacher's admonition, "Girls don't play electric guitar." She was born with rock 'n' roll in her bloodstream.
Cherie is more of a dreamer who has to be coaxed out of her shell into becoming a vicious stage vixen. As adroitly played by Fanning, Cherie is like a million other girls searching for an identity, and using her broken home as a crucible in which to forge a steely persona.
They're brought together by Kim Fowley (a terrific Michael Shannon), a strange but legendary producer who sees in the teen girls a chance to create something new: Hard rock performed by sexy, underage girls. (Upon learning that Cherie is only 15, he raises his fists triumphantly: "Jailbait!")
This is the movie's strongest section, as Fowley sets about forming a band and toughening them up to withstand hecklers and the media glare. With Joan and the rest of the musicians already assembled, Fowley decides they need to inject a little more sex into the mix.
In a great scene, he goes trolling through a local nightclub, picks Cherie out of the crowd because of her brazen stare and Bowie-meets-Bardot look, and offers her a spot in the band.
They rehearse in a run-down trailer, and Fowley composes the song "Cherry Bomb" on the spot for Cherie's audition. (Sounds like a fake Hollywood moment, but various accounts say it really happened.) It's fascinating to watch Cherie, and Fanning herself, transform from innocent little girl to fire-breathing sexpot in a matter of minutes.
Fowley's tactics are a far cry from politically correct, even for 1975 -- he calls the Runaways "kittens" and "little bitches," and even recruits neighborhood boys to hurl tin cans and dog feces at them to make their performance angrier.
The Runaways go on the road, do progressively harder drugs, make the big time, face hordes of fans, and the movie enters the inevitable, dreary decline-and-breakup phase that seems to be genetically embedded into every rock 'n' roll movie.
Writer/director Floria Sigismondi handles the material without a lot of depth, but keeps the film from spiraling into a torpor. She also employs coy camera tricks in tackling the possibility of a lesbian encounter between Cherie and Joan.
Like the band it chronicles, "The Runaways" is mainstream entertainment waving a rebel flag. It still kinda rocks, though.
3 stars out of four