Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Runaways Movie Review: Revisiting a Minor Rock and Roll Band

“You bitches are gonna be bigger than the f---ing Beatles!” Not exactly prophetic words spoken by record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, channeling the psychosis of his Oscar-nominated role in Revolutionary Road) early on in The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi’s feature film debut (she also wrote the screenplay based on Cherie Currie’s autobiography Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway) about the eponymous 1970s all girl rock band.


Currie (Dakota Fanning) was a founding member and the lead singer of the The Runaways. If you’ve never heard of her or them, don’t feel out of the loop. They were a minor blip on the American rock radar screen (they scored their biggest hits overseas, mostly in Japan, where they played sold out shows in 1977) despite headlining shows with such big name acts as Van Halen and Cheap Trick. They are now mostly remembered for launching the career of Joan Jett, who wrote all their songs, onto the rock scene. Currie was only 15 and Jett only 16 when they started their journey with Fowley.

As a director of music videos, Sigismondi directs with a flair for flashy camerawork and editing. If nothing else, the film is well shot. Unfortunately, her first attempt at a screenplay lacks focus. It tries to be too many things at once without ever really exploring any particular issue satisfactorily, let alone thoroughly. She wants her film to be at once a cautionary tale about the effects of the rock and roll lifestyle on young impressionable teens and also a portrait of the rise to stardom of one of the 80s iconic rock stars. It might have worked better if it had simply been about Joan Jett or focused solely on Cherie Currie and her struggles with drugs and alcohol. Although it’s based on Currie’s book (unread by me), I imagine the film’s heavy focus on Jett (Kristen Stewart) draws on alternative sources. It’s hard for me to believe Currie spent so much time discussing her former band mate.

We catch glimpses of Cherie’s home life before she is discovered by Fowley to join a rock band. She seems to live virtually alone with sister – their mother is a self-absorbed actress and their father is an absent alcoholic. The suggestion isn’t that a bad family edged her toward sex, drugs and rock and roll, but that absence of any moral guidance certainly didn’t help. When the film starts Jett is already on her own and we’re never offered any glimpse of her background except what she chooses to tell Cherie.

The early scenes of the band getting together with Fowley packaging them as the next new thing are exciting in that we’re aware that we are bearing witness to a seminal moment in rock history, even if we’re also pretty sure it didn’t go down in quite the truncated version Sigismondi presents on screen. Surely their hit song “Cherry Bomb” wasn’t written by Fowley and Jett on the spot when Currie showed up to audition having prepared “Fever” by Peggy Lee.

Sigismondi throws just about every rock cliché into the mix without tying the incidents into an organic whole, giving it an episodic feel. In addition to the sex and the cocaine and alcohol abuse was it really necessary to throw in some internal band conflict? Even if it’s true that there was tension within the group because of the press attention lavished upon the beautiful and sexy Currie, that doesn’t mean there’s room for it in this narrative.

One thing the film gets absolutely right is the casting. Shannon is electrifyingly hilarious in his first few scenes, but unfortunately his performance wears out its welcome once you realize it’s based primarily on manic yelling and foul language. On the other hand, Fanning and Stewart are wonderful. Here are two of the best young actresses working today. We’ve watched Fanning make the rare transition from adorable child star to mature young actress – a feat perhaps last successfully accomplished by Jodie Foster. Tatum O’Neal, herself no stranger to substance abuse and the pressures of being a young star, makes a brief appearance as Cherie’s mother.

Stewart is rather new to Hollywood, hugely popular for her recurring role in the Twilight film series, but she has shown genuine promise and something more below the surface in films such as Adventureland and Into the Wild. She not only bears a strong physical resemblance to Jett (most of the time I forgot I was watching an actress), but completely embodies the go-for-broke rock and roll attitude that produced that distinct screeching howl Jett belts out in “I Love Rock and Roll.”

There’s a sense that Sigismondi could go on to make a much better film with the right material and a more focused vision. But in her first feature as a director she seems far too caught up in her own feelings as a fan of the group. The film may be trying too hard to make the story of The Runaways, a footnote in the annals of rock history, more important than it should be.


4 comments:

  1. The song Cherry Bomb was written on the spot for me to sing. That is true. I had learned Suzi Quatro's version of 'Fever', not Peggy Lee's. Yes, THAT was a bit of a reach. Wish you would get my book 'Neon Angel'. It would shed light on what you are guessing here.
    Thanks for taking the time to review the film though. Much luck to you.
    Cherie Currie

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  2. I somehow find it hard to believe that Cherie Currie bothers to take the time to search for reviews of a film in which she's the subject written by an amateur critic on a fledgling blog. Besides which, you'd probably have to click through about 30 Google hit pages before finding my review.

    But giving the benefit of doubt, I will say thank you for reading (come to think of it, even if you're not the real Cherie Currie, thank you for reading) and Wikipedia does say that the documentary "Edgeplay: a Film About the Runaways" states the song "Cherry Bomb" was written on the spot for Currie's audition.

    As to the song "Fever," it seemed to me that Currie took the Peggy Lee record to practice. When she went to the audition she even said it was a Peggy Lee song and one of the other band members remarks, "My mom listens to that." Currie notes that Suzi Quatro also covers it, but the impression I got was that Currie had prepared the Peggy Lee version.

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  3. Wrong Jason. It was the SQ version... and this IS the real Cherie Currie. I have Google alert. That's why I saw your blog.
    Get my book.
    Thanks,
    CC

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  4. Just to clarify a point here: I've just taken another look at the scene when Cherie takes the record of "Fever" to practice. It IS the Peggy Lee record.

    Whether the real Cherie Currie learned Suzie Quatro's version or not is irrelevant. I'm judging and reviewing what I saw in the film - and the film uses Peggy Lee's version.

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