Let’s not be coy about this. I fucking love the Runnaways. So unless this film was a complete distaster, I was pretty much guaranteed to love it.
If you don’t know who the Runnaways were, I’ll fill you in. The original line up of Joan Jett, Cherie Curie, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and Jackie Fox are widely accepted to be the first all female Rock and Roll band. For a brief moment in Rock and Roll history they were a white-hot light blazing across the sky. In the mid 70’s women were not playing electric guitars (although Suzi Quatro was playing the bass), they were not playing drums and they certainly weren’t writing songs about uninhibited female desire. Some say they played right into the hands of male audiences. I say The Runnaways were sexually aggressive teenagers, fuelled with rage, a rejection of constructed femininity. They paved the way for every woman in Rock since.
Floria Sigismondi, best known for her work directing music videos, has taken lead singer Cherie Curies memoir ‘Neon Angel’, adapted it into a screenplay and directed a glorious film. I doubt anyone could have been better suited to tackling this project. She is the woman who directed Marylin Mansons ‘Beautiful People’ and has a string of MTV awards under her belt. This is the first time she’s directed a feature film, but she’s got all the right credentials. And she’s done an outstanding job.
The story centres around the friendship between aspiring adolescent guitarist Joan Jett and angry Bowie fan Cherie Curie as they navigate the masculine, drug fuelled world of Rock and Roll stardom. Beginning in the Valley in the mid 70s, a 15 year old Jett, played but Kirsten Stewart, is determined to carve her own path and form an all girl rock band. She approaches renowned music producer Kim Fowley outside a nightclub and he snaps her up, sticks her in a beaten up trailer with Sandy West and berates them into writing music together. In need of a front woman with attitude, and what Fowley describes as ‘genuine jailbait’, they seek out Currie, the confused attention junkie played by Dakota Fanning. Together they ride a wave of sex, drugs, fandom, betrayal and ultimate implosion. In the end, Joans determination is rewarded with international success but Cheries downward spiral into drug addiction has left her exhausted and empty.
Joan Jett is the role Kirsten Stewart was born to play. The awkwardness and thousand yard stare that so often riles journalists, construed as apathy, serves her so well in playing Joan Jett. This film made me fall in love with her. If you’ve ever had misgivings about her, watch this film, it will change your mind. Oh and then watch Adventureland, she’s really good in that too.
Michael Shannon is manager, Kim Fowley. He is a vile, sweaty, libidinous, glam rock peacock. Narcissistic and morally corrupt. Which is pretty much what Kim Fowley, by all accounts, was really like. He was a master manipulator who understood that men would pay handsomely for a taste of unbridled female teenage sexuality and exploited it for his own financial gain. He verbally abused the girls, he taunted them, he groomed them into provocation. He is especially adept at manipulating the 16 year old Curie, making her pose provocatively in her underwear for a Japanese magazine. Curie does not disappoint, she plays the role Fowley casts her in impeccably until it eventually takes it’s toll, she cracks under the pressure and leaves the band. Sigismondi reminds us at every step of the eras pervasive chauvinism. Looking back, the 70s are tainted with stories of high profile men taking liberties with vulnerable young women. It was a time when these attitudes were commonplace and Sigismondi peppers her film with sleazy older men, technicians who refuse to sound check the band because they are girls and A&R guys who are happy to exploit in order to earn a quick buck.
In fact, the film only touches on just how dark being a Runnaway could get in real life. It was only recently that Jackie Fox finally spoke out about being raped by Kim Fowley at a party as the other girls, either too high or too confused to say anything, stood by and did nothing.
However, Sigismondi has chosen to tell a far more uplifting story, especially through the Joan Jett character. She says she hopes it’s an inspirational story for young girls. If girls can watch this and feel like they don’t have to compromise in order to be who or what they want, that their worth lies in what they can do rather than what they look like, that their anger and energy is valid and that they can achieve anything they want, then she’s done great work.
Special mention should also go to cinematographer Benoit Debie, production designer Eugenio Caballero and costume designer Carol Beadle. They re-create the world of mid 70s sun drenched California impeccably. The Japanese scenes are also exquisitely designed.
If you don’t know who the Runnaways are, log into Spotify, listen to Cherry Bomb and then watch this film. They will not disappoint you. If you love the Runnaways already, watch this film. Floria Sigismondi has done them proud.
And oh my god does it pass the bechdel test!