wed 19/06/2024

The Runaways | reviews, news & interviews

The Runaways

The Runaways

Grrrl power unleashed in bracing biopic of the 1970s all-femme band

Bombs away: Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, left) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) in The RunawaysDavid Moir/ Apparition Films

A drop of menstrual blood spatters the ground in the opening shot of The Runaways, an insolent enough metaphor for the unstaunchable female energy that drives writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s bracing biopic of the pioneering all-girl teenage 1970s rock band until it heads up a narrative cul-de-sac.

The blood is leaked by future lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), experiencing her first period while scampering to a club with her less innocent twin sister Marie (Riley Keough), who’ll soon be left in the slipstream of Cherie’s fame to become a drudge. The evening later finds them being driven by an older guy whose hand wanders up Marie’s skirt while Cherie makes quips from the back seat.

Across town, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), the Runaways’ incipient leader and rhythm guitarist, has no time for men, only menswear. Loitering in a dingy clothes store, she tips a bag of loose change on the counter and demands a biker’s black leathers. Joan would prove more iconic than her idol, Suzi Quatro, while Cherie, who does a touchingly awful performance piece as Aladdin Sane-era Bowie on her school’s stage, would revert from androgyny to the self-objectifying (sex) “kitten” role designated to her by her absentee alcoholic father.

Having unknowingly cruised each other, Ying and Yang come together at the front of the Runaways in a surge of skanky, choppy pre-punk rock: Cherie blonde and china-doll fragile, Joan dark and saturnine; gregarious drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and bolshie guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) get minimal screen time. Auditioning Cherie in a trailer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the girls’ legendary foulmouthed svengali, tells them the band’s agenda is to sell - and then withhold - sex, and they write “Cherry Bomb” on the spot. “Jailbait!” Fowley evilly gloats on discovering the singer is a tender 15.

Given that Fanning was that age when she made the movie, and was required to play Currie dressed in brothelly lingerie for the band’s Japanese shows, the film’s feminist agenda is compromised to say the least. (“What were her parents thinking?” a female colleague said to me.) But it’s otherwise forcefully embodied in Joan. Stewart is an essentially passive, interior actress whose sudden breakouts can seem like lightning bolts. At school, she plugs her guitar into an amp and blasts the middle-aged male teacher who wants her to strum “On Top of Old Smoky”. At an early gig she threatens two sneering macho rockers, subsequently urinating on a guitar in their dressing room. And she emphatically tells Cherie she could have just said “No” to the Japanese magazine photographer who snapped her solo in soft-core poses: “Publicise the music”, she says, “not your crotch.”

The excellent Fanning never played brats in her child star years, but she plays one here

In this mythical telling, Joan and Cherie’s ethical clash of values derails the band more than the ever-present drugs or the curtailing of their love affair, which Sigismondi films through a discreetly impressionistic lens: Fanning and Stewart’s kiss is as understated as Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz’s in Vicki Cristina Barcelona. But female libido is distorted when Cherie buys into Fowley’s sexist prescription and travels the short distance from lynx-eyed narcissist to solipsistic prima donna: the excellent Fanning never played brats in her child star years, but she plays one here. Executive produced by Jett, the film was based on Currie’s memoir, so it’s a form of confession.

By the time Cherie has cracked up and started causing public scenes - vilifying supermarket workers with obscene insults, learned from Fowley, that reflect her own self-hatred - Joan, a rock‘n’roll purist, has shrugged off her heartache over Cherie (which doesn’t seem to be reciprocated) and cleaned up her act. Sigismondi literalises this, though the shot of Joan’s face from above, all that can be seen of her as she reclines in a bath and mumbles new lyrics, is undeniably beautiful. “Love is pain”, she growls, “An’ we’ll do it AGAIN!” Her spiritual rebirth is completed when “I Love Rock‘n’Roll”, her biggest hit, explodes on the soundtrack and she dances on her bed in her underwear.

So much for cleanliness: The Runaways, which was photographed by Benoît Debie, is murkily lit in its LA club scenes, evoking the visceral dirtiness of rock'n’roll, more effectively than even 24 Hour Party People or Control, and, of course, there’s vicarious pleasure to be had in recognising that. Once Joan has resurrected herself and Cherie has accepted that her collapse was professionally fatal, the movie has nowhere to go and it peters out.

There’s an attempt at closure that leaves both women and the viewer unsatisfied, but Sigismondi, a video director who makes an auspicious feature debut, should be congratulated for refusing a nice neat bow. The essence of The Runaways is its scorching band performances and the combustible chemistry of its stars.

Watch The Runaways trailer

The girls’ legendary foulmouthed svengali tells them the band’s agenda is to sell - and then withhold - sex

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