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Runaways, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Queens Of Noise"
3 stars

Watching “The Runaways,” the new film chronicling the swift rise and swifter fall of the seminal all-girl rock band that caused a worldwide sensation during their four years together and would go on to influence countless other bands (including the Go-Gos, the Bangles, Hole and The Donnas, to name just a few) in the ensuing decades, is a lot like listening to a new singer trying to cover a classic song that has already been heard in a thousand different versions by a thousand different performers--since the material itself is so inherently familiar, the only way that the singer in question is going to be able to make any kind of lasting impact with it is to serve it up is such a fresh and distinctive manner that it will force people to sit up and take notice of it as if they were hearing it for the very first time. The trouble is that while this take on the rock-band-makes-good genre has been made with plenty of energy and enthusiasm, it lacks that final burst of inspiration that would have set it apart from other similar films. That is bad enough but what is especially heartbreaking is the fact that all the material required to actually do that is sitting right there and for some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers have failed to take advantage of much of it and while the end result may have the salutary effect of exposing younger viewers to the group, it fails to offer much of a compelling case for its own existence.

For those unfamiliar with the group, they formed in 1975 when two young women, guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), separately approached famed L.A. music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon)--who at the time had already worked with artists such as KISS, Warren Zevon and The Modern Lovers and produced the novelty hit “Alley Oop”--with the idea of putting together an all-female rock band. Seeing the commercial possibilities of such a group at a time when rock music was almost entirely male-dominated (he had put an ad in the trades a year earlier in the hopes of forming such a beast himself but no one apparently answered), Fowley put the two of them together to see what they could come up with and they were soon joined by guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and the first of what would prove to be an endless series of bass players (the first, Micki Steele, would eventually become one of the Bangles)--to simplify things, the film combines them all into the fictional Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat). Alas, the group is lacking that certain degree of overt sex appeal needed to put it over the top and Fowley eventually stumbles across it in a club in the form of Cherrie Curie (Dakota Fanning), a 16-year-old girl with an attitude that suggests a cross between Bowie and Bardot and a troubled home life that she will do most anything to escape from. So compelling is her presence that when she shows up for her audition with the wrong song (ordered to learn a tune from one of the band’s key inspirations, Suzi Quatro, she shows up to do Peggy Lee’s “Fever” on the basis that Quatro covered it), Joan and Fowley seize on her jailbait looks and general sense of insouciance and instantly pen a new song for her to sing, a little ditty called “Cherry Bomb” that would go on to become an instant power-pop classic.

Beyond their fairly unconventional beginnings, the story of the Runaways begins to follow a familiar path. After the requisite string of low-paying gigs and sharing cheap motel rooms, the band gets signed to a major label and record their first album and with the combination of Joan’s hard-core attitude and Cherie’s sex kitten demeanor (mostly the latter), the band strikes a chord in the otherwise musically stagnant era. By the time they arrive in Tokyo for a series of concerts, they have officially become the next big thing and even they are shocked to discover the Beatlemania-sized levels of hysteria and adulation on display. This is the high point for the group--the thing that all aspiring rockers dream of--and it is inevitably this moment that things begin to fall apart in a haze of ego and jealousy brought upon by the increasing press focus on Cherie and her looks--an approach fully endorsed by Fowley even though it leaves the others feeling as though they are now just a bunch of babes not to be taken seriously and merely her back-up band instead of a group of equals. Throw in Cherie’s equally inevitable drug problems and emotional troubles involving her alcoholic dad (Brent Cullen), absentee mom (Tatum O’Neal) and a twin sister (Riley Keough) bitter at having been left behind and it is only a matter of time before the entire thing blows up and Currie storms out for good to go off on her own, leaving Joan to pick up the pieces and reestablish herself as a legitimate performer in an industry that sees her only as a pinup.

The early scenes of “The Runaways” are the best as debuting director Floria Sigismondi does a pretty good of establishing both the characters, the hothouse atmosphere that they are living and working in and the heady sense of elation that comes when the band finally begins to click as one. Unfortunately, like most revolutions, cinematic and otherwise, the beginning is a lot more exciting than the end and as this one progresses, it gradually becomes less and less interesting. As I suggested earlier, one of the key flaws is that the story that it tells is one that has been done many times before and unlike the group whose story it tells, it refuses to break out of its confines and offer up something fresh and new. One problem is that by putting more of an emphasis of Cherie Currie’s story, Joan Jett winds up sort of getting pushed to the side and that is a shame because she is by far the more interesting character--while Cherie winds up becoming just another person unable to face the pressures of stardom and ground up and spit out by the entertainment industry as a result, Jett is a tough and tenacious survivor and a person whose life genuinely was saved by rock and roll. By comparison, Cherie just isn’t that interesting of a personality and whenever the focus shifts from the band to her, which is pretty much the entire second half, everything just kind of goes on autopilot--it isn’t so much badly done as it is done.

Another is the inescapable fact that the story of the band becomes a lot more intriguing after the break-up. As the “where-are-they-now?” title cards (which oddly neglect to mention Lita Ford’s success as a solo performer) inform us, Currie went on to act in a few films (including the camp classic “Foxes,” “Parasite” and “Twilight Zone”), recorded a couple of solo albums (including one featuring her sister and Toto), recovered from her drug problems and now works as a chainsaw artist. For his part, Fowley went on to produce other artists (including Helen Reddy), unsuccessfully tried to revive the Runaways with new members and is still a fixture on the music scene, albeit a green-haired one. As for Jett, she would form both a new band, the Blackhearts, and, after having her first album with them rejected by 27 different record company, her own label, see both become enormous successes when the album went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide on the strength of the smash hits “I Love Rock & Roll” and “Crimson & Clover,” deliver a highly regarded performance in Paul Schrader’s rock drama “Light of Day” and continue to tour and inspire subsequent generations of female rockers to this day. I don’t know about you, but I would have loved to have seen a movie that included all of that and to just push it all into a couple of end title cards seems like a great disservice. Perhaps it might have been a better idea to cram everything that is in the movie into its first hour and spend the second focusing on their post-Runaways lives to properly chronicle these twists and turns and show how they picked up the pieces after everything went wrong--at the very least, it certainly would have made for a less predictable tale.

Then again, perhaps it was a wise idea after all to concentrate less on Joan Jett since the other major flaw with “The Runaways” is the bizarre decision to cast Kristen Stewart, arguably the most relentlessly recessive young actress working today, in the role--there are plenty of words out there that could be used to properly define Joan Jett, but “recessive” is definitely not one of them. I have liked Stewart in most of her previous non-vampire-related performances (I urge you again to check out the underrated “Adventureland” as soon as possible) and she does get Jett’s look down pat--in some scenes, she is virtually a dead ringer--but she just lacks the fire and energy that the role requires. With her combination of attitude, intelligence and raw talent, Joan Jett is someone who needs to be played by someone who can instantly seize the screen to such a degree that she is compelling and magnetic even when the focus is off of her but with Stewart in the part, we are stuck with one who seems in danger of fading into the background even during the times when she is front and center. On the other hand, Dakota Fanning makes a much stronger impression as Cherie Currie and while casting her in the role may have been as much of a nakedly commercial consideration as Currie’s hiring in the first place, the sight of America’s Sweetheart walking on the wild side and moving into cinematic womanhood (the film actually opens with her getting her period) does invoke the same kind of uncomfortable yet deniable allure that Currie displayed with such insouciance back in the day. The other standout performance comes from Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, a man whose every utterance ends in an exclamation point and who seems to have based his flamboyant public persona on no less of a creature than Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, the record producer (among other things) at the heart (among other parts) of the immortal “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”--so much so, in fact, that every time he speaks (as when he introduces himself to Cherie with “I am the King Hysteria himself“), it feels as though he owes Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer’s estate a quarter in royalties.

“The Runaways” has a lot of good things going for it--a couple of nice performances, several good individual scenes (I love the bit where Fowley actually brings in hecklers to thrown things at the band in rehearsals in order to toughen them up) and a lot of good music (with many of the Runaways songs performed by Stewart and Fanning themselves) that lends credence to the notion that the group was more than just a one-hit wonder. The trouble with “The Runaways” is that, unlike the Runaways themselves, it never quite figures out a way to separate it from all the other movies about rock bands, real or fictional, that have emerged over the years. I can’t quite recommend it to most people but I suppose that it might have some value if you are an older viewer looking for a brief shot of nostalgia or a younger and musically-inclined female looking for inspiration. For everyone else, you would be making better use of your time and money by downloading the actual Runaways albums, all of which are as strong today as they were when originally released and which will continue to last long after this film is forgotten.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20111&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/19/10 01:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/18/12 David Dakota was great, but Stewart no. She really can't act. Shannon is to good for this movie 2 stars
5/08/12 Flipsider Starts off interesting, but the last hour put me to sleep. 2 stars
10/06/11 Kevin Breece one of my favorite movies. everyone did an amazing job portaying their characters. 4 stars
7/27/10 action movie fan decent story of 70,s girl band stewart and fanning look alot like joan jett and currie 3 stars
4/21/10 Ronald Holst This was about as enjoyable as sex ed In high school 1 stars
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  19-Mar-2010 (R)
  DVD: 20-Jul-2010


  DVD: 20-Jul-2010

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