by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I showed the film The Runaways, about the short-lived all-female rock band from Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1970’s that, at least according to the legend, helped legitimize the notion of women playing rock ’n’ roll and doing it on electric instruments. Though I wasn’t a major fan of the Runaways back in the day — and frankly 1975, the year the Runaways made their debut, was also the start of Patti Smith’s rock career and I think she was a much more important artist in the history of rock in general and did a good deal more than the short-lived and rather poppish Runaways in establishing rock music as a legitimate career for women (though she worked with male musicians) — it was a fun movie, and the Runaways’ music as sampled in the film (partly from the original records and partly new recordings with the film’s stars, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and top-billed Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett) certainly impresses for its sheer energy and precocious sexuality.
The story is an all too predictable one that seems to belong more on VH-1’s old Behind the Music TV series than as the basis for a feature film, but here goes: Cherie Currie is the unhappy child of an alcoholic father and a mother who’s dating a German and is about to move the entire family to Indonesia, where her fiancé lives. She has vague ambitions to be an actress and a singer and makes a bad impression at her high-school talent show when she lip-synchs to David Bowie’s song “Lady Grinning Soul” while wearing her attempt to duplicate the red, white and blue thunderbolt makeup Bowie wore on the cover of Aladdin Sane, the album on which he recorded that song.
Joan Jett is a rebel kid who wants to play electric guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band, wear studded leather things, dress and sing like a man and have sex with women (at least it’s hinted — she’s shown kissing and necking with women but it’s unclear, to say the least, whether she ever goes beyond that; the real Jett never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, whatever it might be, but a lot of people assumed she was Gay simply because, for her first solo album, she covered Tommy James’s “Crimson and Clover” and did not change the words, “I don’t hardly know her/But I think I could love her,” though she said she left the lyrics alone simply because “love him” wouldn’t have rhymed with “clover” anymore). Kim Fowley is a hanger-on in the L.A. scene — the sort of person one writer described as “a has-been who never quite had been” — who goes to the English Disco nights at Rodney Bingenheimer’s club looking for musicians he can produce and who will perform his songs. He has the idea for an all-girl rock band and drafts Jett and drummer Sandy West to start it, then looks for other musicians, including a suitably sex-kittenish singer to front it, and signs Currie.He takes them, plus bassist Lita Ford and Jackie Fox, to a trailer in a deserted part of the L.A. area and tells them to practice incessantly, and they work out a set of songs centered largely around projecting precocious sexuality. Fowley also has them go through “hecklers’ drill,” saying that there are going to be audience members who will react quite violently to the whole idea of an all-woman band playing hard rock, and he teaches the musicians to use their instruments to bat back objects thrown at them.
The Runaways — a name thought of and owned by Fowley, who after the originals had broken up attempted to organize another Runaways in 1984 with none of the same members — then go out on the road, opening for all-male bands whose members are so snippy towards them that Jett and one of her bandmates get back at them by sneaking into their dressing room and literally pissing on their instruments. Eventually they win a contract with Mercury Records (not a particularly prestigious label in the 1970’s) and slog through a tour of Japan, and on their return Rolling Stone and other music and pop-culture magazines make a big to-do about them (the Rolling Stone article, reflecting their youth, is called “Life Begins at 16”). Needless to say, once they start making rock ’n’ roll money they start enjoying rock ’n’ roll excesses as well, including alcohol, drugs and sex (Cherie starts a more-or-less serious affair with the Runaways’ road manager and Joan is shown planting her lips — though little more — on virtually every female within range, including, at one point, Cherie, who’s too passed out from whatever combination of mind-altering substances even to notice, much less resist), until Cherie develops a bad case of diva-it is, walks out on the recording of the Runaways’ second album and ends up envying her sister Marie (Riley Keough), the grounded one in the family, who has a shit job at a fast-food place but still has that job while her sister has burned through a fortune and ended up virtually homeless.
The film ends ambiguously with the breakup of the band — though a series of American Graffiti-style titles let us know that Joan Jett went on to a major solo career (though she had to release her first solo album herself after 23 record companies turned it down), Cherie Currie struggled with her addictions for years (she and her sister Marie did record an album after the Runaways broke up, but it was bland girl-pop with little in common with the Runaways’ explosive rock ’n’ roll) and Kim Fowley continued on his picaresque career (in the movie he’s heard describing the Runaways as a “conceptual project” of his own, which failed), still looking for the elusive mega-success which would propel him to the rock big-time. (Jett was upset that the titles didn’t acknowledge drummer Sandy West, who died just before the film went into production.)
It’s anyone’s guess how much of this story was true — since both Currie and Jett contributed commentaries to the DVD, it should be more interesting than usual to re-watch the film with the commentary track — though both of them contributed to the project, Jett as one of the executive producers (though in today’s movie biz that could mean just about anything) and Currie as author of the book Neon Angel, on which the film is purportedly based — but it rings true, and the evocation of the mid-1970’s, though not flawless, is well done. It’s certainly a wrench to see an era in which young people listened to music on 12-inch plastic discs and didn’t have computers, the Internet, Facebook or the iPod! It’s also an interesting time for music in general because it was on the cusp between the glitter-rock fad and the punk movement — Currie copies Bowie’s look (including his hair — and yes, there’s a certain fascination to see a biological female copying the androgynous look of the biologically male Bowie, approaching the gender in-between from the other end!) while Jett makes herself a Sex Pistols T-shirt as soon as she hears them.
The film was both written and directed by one Floria Sigismondi, whom I’d never heard of before but who gets good performances from her cast and shoots a good enough atmosphere of grunge to deglamorize rock as a profession and an industry and set this movie apart from most of the ones that have been made about it (though I detected a certain influence from the 1981 film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains!, which in turn might have been influenced by the real-life Runaways’ story); there’s a bit of “first-itis” in her script (one would never guess that several years before the Runaways, another all-woman rock band, Fanny, recorded for a major label, Warner Bros.) but at the same time she slyly undercuts the Runaways’ claim to priority among the universe of women rockers when, while the young Jett is shopping in a leather-goods store (and the officious proprietors are trying to steer her over to the women’s section), we hear Wanda Jackson’s hit “Fujiyama Mama” and we’re reminded that there were women rockers long before any of the Runaways were anything more than gleams in their parents’ eyes. (We also hear Suzi Quatro, the British pop-rock bassist and singer whose records first hit U.S. stores in 1972, mentioned as a precursor: Jett idolizes Quatro and takes her as a role model, and Currie auditions for the Runaways with a song Quatro covered — though the song is “Fever” and she makes the mistake of copying Peggy Lee’s version instead.)
The Runaways was a box-office disappointment, and in retrospect it’s hard to tell who the producers thought the audience would be (the production is credited to a company called Apparition — I joked, “It’s not a real movie, it’s just an Apparition” — one called Riverroad and Sony, which had the DVD rights) since a movie about a now largely forgotten 1970’s band in a style which itself is considered pretty much out of date (ironically, the descent of rock from its former heights of popularity and its replacement with pop at the more mellow music mainstream and rap as the “edgy” youthful-rebellion music has opened more opportunities for women musicians than existed in the mid-1970’s) would have been a risky commercial bet in 2010 even under the best of circumstances.
I suspect a lot of the appeal was thought to lie in Dakota Fanning’s first (almost) adult role, and while she doesn’t break through her image as a child star in quite the same explosive, burning-bridges-behind-you style Macaulay Culkin did in the marvelous Party Monster, she’s quite effective even though Kristen Stewart has the more interesting, less clichéd character (and it’s not surprising from the evidence in the movie that, aside from a brief success for Lita Ford, Jett was the only member of the Runaways whose career held up and even thrived after the band broke up) and delivers the edgier performance of the two. The Runaways is a fun movie that could have delved much deeper into the weirdness of the rock ’n’ roll world and its quirky definitions of “success,” but even as it stands it’s a lot of fun, albeit a movie that works a lot better if you actually lived through the period it depicts rather than — like most moviegoers today — being as young now as the protagonists were when the story was taking place.