There is (arguably) no movement that changed the landscape of music culture more than punk rock in the 1970s. It was more than just backlash against the more sophisticated artistry of music in the late-60s, or the bloated arena rock that was popular at the time (forgive me if I’m being reductive); it was a shift in attitudes regarding the intersection of music and culture. A shift that encouraged a rejection of traditional systems in favor of a DIY-ethic and an emphasis on music as the centerpiece of a larger visceral experience. That and it was loud, dirty, and aggressive as all hell.
Enter The Runaways, the seminal all-girl punk band formed in 1976, and for whom the film is eponymously named. Despite being in their teens (vocalist Cherie Currie was only fifteen when the band formed), The Runaways had the chops and the attitude characteristic of the era. The film tells the story of the band’s tumultuous, and short-lived, career. Although today they are not as well recognized as some of their more mainstream contemporaries, everyone knows or has at least heard the works of Joan Jett, the group’s founder and guitarist. Jett, one of the film’s executive producers, worked as a consultant for the film along with most of the other band members.
The film follows the story arc of two members of the group: Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. Jett (portrayed by Kristen Stewart) wrote or co-wrote most of the group’s songs and has the personality of a genuine artist. She demonstrates this early in the film in a scene where she grows bored with her guitar instructor. When she recognizes record producer Kim Fowley at a club, she approaches him without hesitation even though she (a) does not have a band and (b) isn’t even sure why she’s approaching him. It doesn’t matter though, because he figures it out. Rock and roll speaks for itself and Joan is rock and roll.
Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) becomes the lead singer of the group when she is found by Fowley (now the de facto manager) in a local club. An aspiring performer herself, she accepts the offer without hesitation and becomes a snarling, provocative frontwoman under the tutelage of Fowley. She may not have the raw, innate talent of Jett, but she is incredibly devoted to the band and her newfound friends. She also has a complicated life at home; her mother (Tatum O’Neal) is more interested in her new husband and her father is a drunk. Her older sister means well but Cherie does not want to wind up working a dead-end job like her. Being a rock icon seems more appealing.
As the story progresses, many of the familiar rock-and-roll biopic elements present themselves: tours, lots of fans, record deals, drugs, sex, alcohol, too many drugs, rifts between members of the band, a band member passing out at an inconvenient time, you know the drill. It’s been done before, but that’s not to say it doesn’t work. This is owed to the realized development of Jett and Currie, likely shaped by the band’s creative input on the film. Although their aforementioned personality types eventually create tensions, the film never makes the mistake of fully polarizing the two. That would be too easy.
The real wrench in the works is Fowley, the band manager played by Michael Shannon in a dynamic, never dull performance. He is the sort of character that always has something outrageous to say and always seems busy with many things at once (you’ll see what I mean…). Throughout the film, he makes a lot of promises to the band — they will be as big as the Beatles, they will show the world that the music industry isn’t just for men, and so on. He also trains them in basic performance etiquette such as how to deflect items thrown by hecklers. But when he encourages Currie to get in touch with her sexual side, things get complicated between the bandmates. The Runaways Last.fm page says that, in real life, Fowley considered an all-girl rock band a highly marketable novelty act. Whether or not this is actually true, it does come through emphatically in the film. At one point in the film, he shouts at the girls, “This isn’t about women’s lib! This is about women’s libido!”
The Runaways does a lot of things well within the genre of the music biopic. It shows how managerial control and the desire to become more popular can compromise an independent ethos (the issue of gender roles in the music business is wrapped into this as well). Even though the rest of the band is, unfortunately, left relatively one-dimensional, the development of the Joan and Cherie characters is enough to save that. In these ways, the film succeeds. But if that sort of stuff isn’t really your thing, The Runaways still has a lot of awesome music and it’s a fun little ride.
The Runaways is the Late Night Movie this week at the C-U Art Theatre. For showtimes, visit the website. Check out the trailer below:
And while you’re at it, check out this video of the Runaways performing live in Japan from 1977: