Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Runaways (2010) Review

The Runaways
Was the movie directed by Kim Fowley himself?

I ask this because at one point during a conversation between The Runaways band and their producer Kim Fowley, Fowley essentially sums up the appeal of not only the band and why people buy their albums and view them in concert, but also the attraction that real-life movie audiences would have towards a movie based on the real band The Runaways. The idea for The Runaways as a band was hatched by a young Joan Jett, who presented this to Kim Fowley in the hopes that he could pull together the first truly successful all-girl rock band. Sensing a strong opportunity for a marketing ploy, Fowley accepted and worked to build up the bands image for sexy, barely-out-of-their-teens appeal. Of course, it did help that the band created legitimately good rock music in their short four year long career, but Fowley didn’t care much for that as long as the bad-girl posturing was still on full display and in the spotlight. This failed because the band members couldn’t get along with each other, especially after lead singer Cherrie Currie began to grow an ego, and the flashy marketing couldn’t hold them together. In many ways, the real-life history of The Runaways sums up how The Runaways movie was conceptualized.

Plot Synopsis: In the beginning, Cherie Currie and Joan Jett started out just as wannabe kids going through life as punks that weren’t very popular with others. When Cherie dresses up in David Bowie glam and performs one of his songs on stage at a talent show, she is booed off the stage. Meanwhile, Joan spends most of her time playing guitar with her friend away from home. While Joan is at a local nightclub, she runs into record producer Kim Fowley, and the two hatch the idea of creating an all-girl rock band along with drummer Sandy West. On their search for a young girl that could take the part of lead singer, they come across Cherie in the club, who eagerly joins in an effort to leave her home life where her parents are essentially gone from her life. By using their “jailbait” appeal, as he calls it, Fowley is successful in propelling the girls into instant stardom within the rock world.


Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, I’ll focus on the three lead performers Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, and Michael Shannon, who are the best reasons to see the movie. Although Fanning and Stewart are the stars of the film, Shannon blasts them away with his gleefully foul-mouthed and perverse take on Kim Fowley. Every scene with him in it takes the film to an entirely different level where he is the star and the actresses essentially just stand around and watch as Shannon overshadows their performances. That isn’t to say that Fanning and Stewart lack screen presence though. All notions audiences have about Fanning still being a child star are erased fairly quickly once she starts sporting glam makeup, popping pills, and belting out lyrics in skimpy outfits onstage (she is still only 15, but then again so was the real Cherrie Currie at the time). Also, contrary to popular opinion, Cherrie is the main character on display, not Joan Jett, which was fine because Dakota is a very strong actress and she further proves that here. Surprisingly very good is Kristen Stewart as Jett, but that’s probably because I’m so used to her lifeless acting in Twilight. Despite resorting to her usual ticks occasionally (lip biting), Stewart really feels like a younger version of Joan with her outsider, rebellious attitude. Also of note is that Fanning and Stewart do their own singing, with Stewart perfectly replicating Joan’s hard-edged voice.


Because Fanning, Stewart, and Shannon are given so much screen time, this means that the other three band members feel like background noise. Drummer Sandy West essentially pulls the band together with Joan and is forgotten after that. Lita Ford is only there to provide conflict within the band for one scene, and Robin Robins (an amalgam of four different bass players from the band’s career) doesn’t speak a word. At least the other Doors members aside from headliner Jim Morrison were able to be viable presences in their movie. What the movie lacks is context, a foundation for all the flash of rock and roll. Music video director Floria Sigismondi knows the moves, the look, and the feel of the 70s rock culture, but doesn’t use them in any meaningful or original way (kind of like a…well…music video). As a screenwriter, Sigismondi also has problems keeping a fluid and well-developed structure. For obvious marketing reasons, Joan Jett’s screen time has been increased to almost match Cherrie Currie’s (the movie is actually based on Currie’s novel), but in terms of character development she is curiously lacking. For most of the movie, she is merely a cipher, a mystery that relies on Joan’s real life popularity and well-known personality to generate faux investment.

What also keeps the film afloat, aside from the great performances, is the “bad girl” attitude that shows through in Sigismondi as a director and the selection of tunes from both The Runaways, a few other bands from the era, and even one nice choice from Joan Jett’s future band The Blackhearts (you will know which song it is when you hear it). The movie wisely avoids ending on a cliffhanger that would set up a Blackhearts sequel, and instead ends on note of life simply continuing on, with its characters separated but doing what they want to do. The Runaways may not provide the insight or depth to give it staying power, but the acting, visuals, and music should keep the entertainment level high enough for at least one viewing.


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