Directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton
Is Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways the great rock ‘n’ roll movie it’s been tagged as in some quarters? No, probably not. It’s certainly good. It’s entertaining. It has a little edge to it. But in the end, it’s hardly some revelatory breakthrough. Instead, it’s pretty much a standard-issue rise-and-fall—and partial rise again—rock saga. In other words, it’s probably about as good a movie as the title band deserves. But it’s also something more than that thanks to the performances of Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon.
Sigismondi’s screenplay—based on Cherie Currie’s book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story—is bold in its unvarnished and unflinching look at the Runaways, especially Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). It—along with her frequently vibrant direction—does a good job of capturing the frenzied atmosphere of the time and of women who are too young to effectively deal with the world in which they’ve landed. The drugs, the casual—and often ambivalent—sexuality and the pressure are all well-defined. Better still, all these things are defined in a matter-of-fact manner that accepts them as part and parcel of this world. The depictions are never tabloid-esque and leering.
Unfortunately, there’s another side to Sigismondi’s screenplay—and it’s perhaps an inevitable one. The film tends to fall into clichéd showbiz drama when sketching in the backgrounds of Currie and Jett. We’re given Currie’s completely unfocused obsession with being a rock star—à la David Bowie—mostly by virtue of a school talent show where she makes herself up like Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover and lip-synchs “Lady Grinning Soul.” It sort of works, because it captures the childish enthusiasm of her quest, but it’s not wholly convincing. Jett, coming into contact with the resistance of a high-school music teacher (“Girls don’t play electric guitar”), is probably a dead-on depiction of the attitude she encountered, but it feels forced, staged and simplistic.
That said, the film manages to completely capture the almost happenstance manner in which morally and ethically dubious, strangely canny, eccentric, sexually ambiguous, bottom-of-the-barrel rock promoter Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) throws the band together and molds its members into the Runaways. Did it happen quite like this? Possibly not, but it works in the film—as both an exploitation of the young women and an empowering event for the very concept of a hard-rocking girl group. The only comparable work I can think of is the multi-part British TV film Rock Follies (1976), but there the women are all old enough to know the score and are thrown together by circumstances and a sense of something akin to desperation, not enthusiasm.
Yes, the creation and grooming of the Runaways relies heavily on genre tropes—including the crafting of their big song “Cherry Bomb” in rock-movie basic. It’s all here. You have the crummy early tours, the tabloid publicity, the sophisticated hype, the sudden fame, the descent into the so-called rock lifestyle, the disillusionment of the youthful band and the cynical practicality of the promoter. There’s even that comeback moment for Jett where the audience gets the song they’ve been expecting for the entire movie. More of it works than it has any right to, and that’s partly due to Sigismondi, but more of it is due to Stewart, Fanning and Shannon.
For both Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, the film is a revelation. Here the actresses completely shed the images they’ve both tried to break out of before. (The Runaways ought to be required viewing for all Twilight fans—if only to shake them up.) Stewart pretty much nails Joan Jett in both look and attitude. Unlike the often admirable Adventureland (2009) where I could never get past her Twilight character, I had the actual sense of Joan Jett here. If anything—possibly because it’s the showier role—Fanning is even better, capturing both the strength and vulnerability of Cherie Currie. And then there’s Michael Shannon, who first announced his greatness as an actor in William Friedkin’s little-seen Bug (2006) and then made an even greater impression as the only living thing in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008). He turns the outrageous, virtually impossible Kim Fowley into something believable and real.
Should you see this film? Oh, yes. It has its faults, but it also has its strengths. Chief among those strengths are three terrific performances, though only a fool would think those performances were created in a vacuum and had nothing to do with Sigismondi’s direction. And Sigismondi scores some hits of her own. She’s definitely a filmmaker to watch—and so is her film. Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content—all involving teens.