by Richard von Busack
Despite the opening shot—a splotch of menstrual blood on a hot San Fernando Valley pavement—in The Runaways, director Floria Sigismondi cuts back on the blood, sweat and tears of rock & roll. The Runaways is an artfully photographed but standard behind-the-music job on the 1970s band. The main character is the frail, easy-to-exploit singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), whose autobiography Neon Angel is sourced. Currie’s partnership (with benefits) with guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) gets her to the top and then straight down to the bottom.
Currie and Jett were two of the five members of an L.A. band, mentored by the psychedelic Svengali Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who, in this vision, seems to be the direct model for Gerrit Graham’s “Beef” in Phantom of the Paradise. Certainly, the movie delivers some moments of bad fun: Jett dropping trou and giving a golden shower to a rival’s guitar, most notably. And Sigismondi does supply some sex: a half-in-focus night with Currie and Jett swirling around toward bed (and I did love the morning-after moment, with Currie waking up, still with her roller skates on her feet).
As modestly produced as an art film, The Runaways tries creative ideas to cover the lack of a budget. In the Japanese scenes (faked in L.A.), it looks as if the band flew across the Pacific to entertain all of 40 customers. More than snark makes me mention this: it’s easier to insist on the pain of rock stars when it looks like they had no fans. The hard-work angle is stressed, lest we don’t take the band seriously: loads of practicing in a crappy house trailer followed by repeat doses of badly staged household drama. These scenes are a lesson to us all: negligent parents created victims of quail hunters like Fowley. The band becomes a success, but that just brings pervy exploitation of the hardly legal Cherie. “Publicize the music, not your crotch!” screams Jett, although the band has been stressing the girl version of below-the-belt rock.
Sigismondi gives the Runaways their props as female artists in a land of chauvinists. But it wasn’t feminists that made a success of girls in short-shorts and tight T-shirts. “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido,” says Fowley, and the emptiness starts to infect the movie. It’s Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ later work that stands up and barks on this soundtrack, and that’s only on the end titles. The copious needle drops make it all too clear: there’s a difference between the stature of a tune like the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and a tune like Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger.”
Stewart desperately needed a role where she wasn’t coltish neck-candy for some emo vampire. As raven-haired cock-of-the-walk musician, or alone, face floating in a milk-colored bathtub, she’s more Weimar than Woodland Hills. Fanning can’t compete: it’s an interesting conception to play Currie as a girl too young to have a determined personality. But you don’t see why Curie held the stage. The Runaways is so awfully not much fun at all, particularly for contemporaries of this scene. If I live much longer, I’ll see a biopic in which the Fifth Dimension are portrayed as rebels the Man wouldn’t leave alone.