Friday, February 11, 2011

The Runaways

Directed by Floria Sigismondi.
2010. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Dakota Fanning
Kristen Stewart
Michael Shannon
Riley Keough
Scout Taylor-Compton
Stella Maeve
Alia Shawkat
Tatum O’Neal

In 1975, the first all-girl, all-teen rock band took the world by storm. They were named The Runaways and they were anchored by lead guitarist and future rock icon Joan Jett (Stewart). However, the biggest star in the group at that time was lead singer Cherie Currie (Fanning). Our story starts with the days just before this wild ride started and ends just after the ride does, a little more than two years later. Of central concern is how this affected these two young ladies.

Based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story by the real Currie, it’s understandable the film centers around her. It’s easily the most adult role to date for Dakota Fanning who sheds her creepy pale kid image for drugged up pale starlet. Perhaps symbolizing both the growing up of the character and the actor, the first time we see Currie she’s getting her period for the first time. Unlike most young ladies, there’s no rush to the supermarket or to borrow something from her mom or sister. Instead, she stuffs a wad of toilet paper in her undies. Ewww.

Ickiness aside, that scene symbolizes something else, also. It lets us know we’re not about to watch any dainty debutantes who happen to play instruments. These are a couple of bawdy broads who don’t quite fit in with regular society and the subculture they so desperately want to be a part of may not quite be ready for them. The movie takes on their grit and disdain for perceived normalcy. It depicts rock-n-roll as liberating yet misogynist, hedonist yet dangerous.

Fanning carries the movie with a wonderful performance. She ably facilitates a number of our emotions. We love, hate, are disgusted by and sympathize with her, all at once. As Jett, Kristen Stewart shows considerably more ability than she has in the Twilight movies. She’s not quite the performer Fanning is, but she holds her own. None other than the real Joan Jett has praised her work. By the way, Fanning is horrible in the Twilight flicks, too, but she only has bit parts.

None of this would work without two things. The first seems rather easy. The soundtrack comes ready-made. Songs from the era, mostly by the real Runaways are both played on stage and plugged in at appropriate times during non-performance scenes. If you’re a fan, you’ll want to have the volume cranked to 11 for this one. Look up the reference, I’m too lazy to explain.

The second thing is a villain. To that end, we get Michael Shannon as producer Kim Fowley. His maniacal puppeteer act injects life into the girls even as it threatens to suck it out of them. Eventually, it does. The question is how permanent is the damage? Fowley’s wild-eyed, quick-tongued nuttiness isn’t the only problem, here. The girls are young and impressionable, quick to indulge in whatever feels good at the moment. It’s quite the volatile mix.

The movie is not without flaws. There are too many things on screen we never get a feel for. They’re mostly skimmed over or ignored. The biggest thing is the other girls in the band. They’re just set decorations, more or less. Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton), who went on to become a star in her own right, has one moment where she spazzes out on Currie, but that’s it. Really? There are five girls in the band and three of them are pretty much faceless. Ford, nor the others, even get a blurb at the end explaining what happened to them after the events depicted like Currie, Jett and Fowley. This would’ve been a much better movie had the others been allowed to participate as they must have in real life.

Other things feel left out, as well. How did they come up with the name of the band? Did they care or even know that Jett and Currie were having sex with each other? How does Joan actually learn to play guitar? We see her get one lesson which she storms out of because she doesn’t like her instructors song of choice. How did they come up with the songs? The movie at least attempts to answer the last one as we see how they come up with their hit “Cherry Bomb.” Apparently, the way they came up with the rest is vastly different. However, we find this out way too late and in a way that doesn’t seem tangible to the group.

Regardless of its problems, TR is an enjoyable watch. Excellent acting and a down and dirty tone keep us intrigued. It moves swiftly, never drags. In true seventies fashion, it has fun with all the debauchery on display. In the end, it’s part womens lib, part cautionary tale and all sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

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