Film Reviews

by Robert Buchanan

The Runaways

Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Starring Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon, Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O'Neal, Brett Cullen, Johnny Lewis

Their appeal was by no means elusive. Assembled by one of the most notorious hitmakers of popular music's brief history, five teenage girls (three among them at least as comely as canorously deft) performed and recorded jagged, chugging rock music that gushed aimless, exuberant sex and rebellion. During their 44-month existence, The Runaways teased, smoked, snorted, drank and rocked a course through hundreds of venues in the United States, United Kingdom and continental Europe to exuberant fans and fervid, transient fame prior to an exhilarating reception as pop superstars in Japan. Following the departure of bassist Jackie Fox and lead singer Cherie Currie, the band's popularity expanded further during a world tour with The Ramones. Ultimately, infighting fueled by constant rivalry, incompatible ambitions, a succession of bassists and mutual animosity ended the group as they came of age and their gimmick expired. Five albums, eight singles, numerous compilation releases and perhaps a thousand intriguing stories have cemented The Runaways as an enduring cult phenomenon and a subject ripe for a thrilling, sordid biopic. Unfortunately, music video director Floria Sigismondi adapted the band's short and hellish history in such an inaccurate and listless manner that devoted fans in view of it will be left frustrated and many newcomers will wonder why their story was chosen for the medium.

First and worst, vapid non-talent Kristen Stewart and newly-blossomed Dakota Fanning are woefully miscast as Currie and rock icon Joan Jett. Bitterly plain and nearly lipless, Stewart's wan countenance scarcely resembles that of the lush, doe-eyed, baby-faced singer and guitarist in her gorgeous late teens. She mimics Jett's body language with adequate accuracy, assuming her slouched, head-dunking shyness and soft, husky mumble, yet hasn't an iota of the boyish charm or sex appeal that endeared the genuine article to hordes of fans. As usual, Stewart awkwardly rushes her every line and only seems uncertain of herself, and for good reason. Reportedly reduced to tears when rebuked by Jett herself for her shortcomings, it's difficult to imagine anyone worse than Stewart in the role of rock's tough feminine quintessence - Gabourey Sidibe, perhaps.
Conversely, Fanning's pillowy presence is incongruous with the angular allure of Currie's adolescence, but her performance - while lead to error by a dreadful script - is nonetheless impressive for its ruminant maturity. Fanning nails Currie's pouty reserve but not the spark that lit stages the world over; none of her extroverted qualities are to be seen or heard. A layered, bleach-blonde coif and matching wardrobe do not a Cherie Currie make, but Fanning shows promise as an actress nonetheless.
However, this picture's superlative act isn't to be drawn from its female performers. Lodged in a tangerine suit and adorned with tawdry makeup, Michael Shannon's portrayal of opprobrious manager/producer/promoter Kim Fowley is as revolting and profane as could be expected by those familiar with the man. An American equivalent of Malcolm McLaren, Fowley's shameless exploits and storied abuses render most of his contemporaries on either Atlantic shore choir boys in comparison. Shannon exudes that very same repugnant, disconcerting charisma with bombastic gesticulation and a piercing nasal baritone indistinguishable from those of his subject. Fowley himself has praised the authenticity of Shannon's interpretation; even now, the demented geriatric refuses to shy away from unflattering publicity.
As Currie's twin sister Marie, Riley Keough looks and acts her part: whiny, supportive and perpetually envious in sufficient facsimile. Unfortunately, the twins' disastrous, short-lived professional stint isn't suggested here. Despite her doppelganger resemblance to and exacting apery of insufferable lead guitarist Lita Ford, Scout Taylor-Compton isn't granted more than a few vicious tirades. As the outfit's most violent, back-biting, insecure and technically proficient member, Ford's persona proposes enormous dramatic and comedic potential which is never explored. Stella Maeve also bears a fair likeness to drummer Sandy West, who - despite being the intercessive rock that prevented her bandmates from murdering one another many times over - is hardly so marginalized as Ford, but still unrepresented to her binding social capacity. Never mind that two the band's three extroverts are relegated to relatively scant notice; bassist Jackie Fox is excised entirely by her own wise demand, replaced by a character named Robin (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development). Any hardcore Runaways fan hoping to catch a glimpse of Vicki Blue need look elsewhere.
Tatum O'Neal is cunningly positioned as Currie's overbearing mother (O'Neal was playing spitfire hellions based on celebrities like Currie when both were teens) and makes the best of her cursory role. Though he couldn't be confused with Currie's father in pitch darkness, Brett Cullen is also satisfactory in a characterization of the long-suffering alcoholic patriarch that deserved twice its screen time.

Spurred to constant rehearsal, performance and recording from inception to dissolve, The Runaways were typical workaholics of hard labor and harder indulgence, so every dramatic sequence of this movie should alternate with a reenacted number performed on stage or in studio, and in mercurial succession. Instead, it plods along heavily from one sluggish interlude to another, and the audience is treated to a scant few tracks. Beautifully shot and edited with sedulous detail, the live shows are portrayed with a filmic stylism to which the actors aren't peered. Of Sigismondi's many missteps, the decision for Stewart and Fanning to provide vocals for new recordings rather than lip-sync to concert or studio audio was perhaps her worst. In resonance and appearance alike, the band presented seem a weirdly enervated shade of the real deal - Fanning's voice wanes in comparison to Currie's playful snarl and that gut-punch delivery that made the band isn't to be felt. Especially disappointing is a thrillingly-shot version of Dead End Justice, the silly, theatrical play-act of which is expurgated, despite its enormous cinematic potential as a sequence of surreal kitsch.
Neither of the U.S. tours are distinguished from one another, much less punctuated by the tedium of the Queens of Noise sessions. The Runaways couldn't frequent a venue without pulling cruel pranks on strangers, fans, personnel and each other. We're treated to only one of these, an instance in which Jett exacted revenge on Rush by soiling their instruments with urinary gusto...but as the anterior incident that piqued her ire isn't explained, we're spared her satisfaction. During their European tour, the band performed before dangerously savage punk audiences and Joan, Sandy and Cherie were briefly imprisoned at Scotland Yard for hoarding motel room keys in imitation of Robert Plant (and rightful suspicion of drug possession); these ordeals are passed over, even though they're the veritable substance of great rock-and-roll storytelling.
Thrilling, then, that we're treated to a protracted scene in which faux Joan spray-paints her famous homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt...these girls played as openers and headliners alike on the same bills as the Pistols, Blondie, Cheap Trick, Motorhead, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Ramones, Boston, The Dead Boys, The Damned and Van Halen, nearly all of whom they befriended. None of these famed musicians are mentioned in familiar passing, nor are any performances based on anyone of their fellow or rival acts. Nary a single of the band's many memorable photo shoots for Creem, Who Put the Bomp! or Chopper magazines are granted a second of screen time. Of course, the silly promotional stunts to which they happily subjected themselves are disregarded altogether. Three of these young ladies stood by to watch in awe as Sid Vicious attempted arson onstage, and this is ignored in lieu of hazy footage wherein Cherie lethargically pops another pill or toots another line.

Often, the film's distortions are even more galling than its innumerable omissions. Here, Currie's audition with the band (the very session that necessitated Jett's and Fowley's composition of their trademark tune) occurs not at a suburban home owned by Kari Krome's parents, but the fetid trailer nestled away in the San Fernando Valley in which they later rehearsed. So much for a stab at garage origins. Cherie's famous satin Cherry Bomb corset is introduced not at their second gig at The Starwood, but nearly a year later for the first Tokyo concert. At this juncture, the intolerable tweaking of this film's chronology seems almost moot, but for Joan's mild revulsion regarding this skimpy attire, which is news to me. Without Fox's nervous breakdown at her disposal, Sigismondi instead opts to collapse Cherie from the bowels of an elevator before a crowd, shooting this from a clichéd bird's-eye angle. One can hardly discredit the director for her every condensation and alteration (there are more than could be listed in the prospect of this review), but these are both unnecessary and detrimental to any justifiable report of this story.

Currie's own persona is scripted as a nearly two-dimensional caricature, for which little is demonstrated to explain her desperate devotion to the band and addictive preoccupations. Her early position as a Bowie worshiper is accurately staged: Cherie's bedroom walls are plastered with photographs of Z. Stardust and the Thin White Duke, and her face painted in mimicry of the former. One of Sigismondi's slips was to avoid even a suggestion of Cherie's rape by Marie's grotesque ex-boyfriend. Brendan Sexton (who played sleazy white trash with memorable verisimilitude in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Boys Don't Cry) is a perfect choice as the squalid transgressor, but he never does more here than to flirt with his victim to her disgust. Even worse, tour manager Scott Anderson is treated as the mere initiator of a cute fling; in reality, Anderson strung Currie along whilst bedding everyone else in the band (save Fox), left her pregnant and never paid for her traumatic abortion. O'Neal is imposing as Currie's mother, but we've no substantive evidence of the divorce which divided her family, and the subsequent abandonment that incurred many more scarring events isn't even discussed. Just as the delirium and mirth of the band's adventures are mostly neglected, so too are the most difficult episodes of Currie's teenage decade, and all the joy, tragedy and clamorous success thereof are consequently forfeited. Even Currie's couplings with Jett (the self-proclaimed delights of her many relations) ought be realized with greater subtlety and passion.

To be fair, at least a few honest, enjoyable moments shine through this movie's near-constant ennui. Cherie's performance at a high school talent show in ornate simulation of Bowie as she boldly lip-syncs Lady Grinning Soul to a hostile, then celebratory response does justice to the frontwoman's gutsy legacy. In a motel shower, Sandy indulges herself with showerhead masturbation as Joan keenly goads her. Even this flick's most unsparing detractors must smile at the sight and sound of Shannon as Fowley, energetically excoriating the group in their rancid rehearsal chamber; he doesn't especially resemble his much more gaunt subject, but in such perfect echo, one can barely notice. A racy photo shoot of light-clad Currie on her front lawn conducted by a Japanese photographer is interrupted by the frontwoman's grandmother, who chases them off with cane in hand. Were that the whole film was so much fun...

Sigismondi laudably, predictably addresses the significance of a successful distaff rock band in a stridently masculine era, but barely depicts the consequences of what was widely perceived a pandering affront to the genre's sensibilities. Female bands in recent years complain much more regarding far less than what these girls endured: direct sexual harassment by their male fans, savagely ugly reviews that betrayed obvious biases and the constant question of their musicianship notwithstanding palpable proof of honed skill to be seen and heard at their every show. Although a large portion of the pop music press loathed The Runaways, Sigismondi exhibits only their acclaim and a single minor instance of chauvinism voiced by a pair of greasy headliners (substituted for Rush).

Perhaps not wholly exceptional, this movie's production is nonetheless a product of gifted contributors. Eugenio Caballero's period details are agreeably immersive, drawing nostalgic eyes to furnishings and vehicles. Despite a common (though sparing) reliance on color filters, Benoit Debie's photography is invariably attractive, and flashier scenes set in clubs and arenas are nothing shy of eye-popping. Those and too many betwixt were deftly cut by veteran Richard Chew (The Conversation, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope), who, like the more talented among the cast, is hardly presented with challenges worthy of his skill. Probably the production's most notable aspect, Carol Beadle's costume design is first-rate; the commonplace clothing looks the era, but The Runaways' onstage garb - and especially their costumes worn during the Queens of Noise / Japan tour - were tailored to precise detail.

Eschewing the more interesting scenario that actually happened, Cherie's final split with the band doesn't occur during Vicki Blue's first photo shoot with them, when Lita assertively lost her mind, nearly dispatching the moody Quaalude queen from this mortal coil. More predictably, Sigismondi opted for a scenario that occurred months before, when Currie took umbrage at a typically outrageous Fowley interview in which the profligate executive famously, disingenuously observed the unbearable magnitude of her ego, and the probability that her suicide might only further the rest of them. This and another confrontation between the producer and his skinny charge lead her (in bizarro world) to exit the band after trading sentimental clichés with anti-Joan, not months of bandmate squabbling circuitously encouraged by Fowley that we couldn't be bothered with. Thus, viewers are led to believe that immediately thereafter, The Runaways were no more. Never mind that they continued for another twenty-odd months, releasing two albums (each of which bore a minor hit), finally dismissing Fowley from his position and departing on a tour during which they actually turned a reasonable profit without Fowley's greedy interception. Sandy's and Lita's refusal to participate in a musical film that Joan assumed the band would engage finally signaled the end of the group days before this reviewer was churned onto Earth to enrich it. Also, Fowley produced the underwhelming record that launched Cherie and Marie's terse and troubled solo career in order to complete her contractual obligations. Of course, no mention is made of the Runaways' movie, We're All Crazy Now, which was to be shot in the style and character of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (footage of Jett shot for this project was later incorporated into Du-beat-e-o, a quasi-documentary of the L.A. punk scene starring and co-written by late cult oddity El Duce).
Brooding in her bathtub near the film's close, Stewart - her skinny, unpleasantly contoured nose jutting upward so to emphasize that she is not Joan Jett - monotonously muses on the opening lyrics of Love is Pain before loosing a raspy "An' we'll do it again" - without even an instant's halting doubt, the second-worst JJ impression yet foisted to my ears.
Meanwhile, a strung-out Cherie shops for onions and vodka prior to her ejection from a grocery store (actually an attenuated version of a much more embarrassing event that occurred nearly six years later). Her subsequent rehabilitation and the many agonizing tortures that she survived after exiting the band aren't exhibited. However, she is depicted clean, sober and working in retail circa 1981 when she calls Rodney Bingenheimer's radio show to speak with Jett. Actually, she was at the modest peak of a promising film career that she hadn't yet destroyed and was years from hitting rock bottom, but it's nice to dream, eh?

Of all the insults to fans and bandmates alike, the closing onscreen text is perhaps the most outrageous: only the careers of Jett, Currie and Fowley following The Runaways' split are summarized. Thanks to Kenny Laguna's inexplicable vendetta against Ford, neither she nor her decade-long winning streak are mentioned. Vicki Blue's career as a filmmaker isn't either, though that's no surprise - this film was commissioned by Jett and Laguna as an antithesis to her celebrated tell-all documentary, Edgeplay, which Jett attempted to suppress for reasons unknown. Unquestionably the most painful exclusion, Sandy West - she who contacted Jett at Fowley's suggestion with the initial idea for an all-girl rock band, who constantly did everything in her power to keep an array of unstable personalities from terminal conflict, who never recovered from the group's split to her death in 2006 - isn't even provided a posthumous mention. As executive producers of this picture, one can rationalize the intent of Jett and Laguna to portray the beloved rock star in a flattering light - indeed, the picture is as much a means to exercise the profitability of Blackheart Records' catalog as anything else - and even this reviewer can't begrudge her so much for ego and profit. Does an aging star adored around the globe for her talent and affability need to blot out the lesser luminance of her former bandmates to make her own shine brighter?

To her credit, Sigismondi's skill as a director of musical scenes is beyond debate, but for her every artful creative decision, she realizes two of inexplicable gaucherie and is clearly unable to see a pine cone for its tree, much less any vista of the forest. She turns in an admirably attractive feature on a scant $10M, but this subject necessitated a loud, ludicrous, melodramatic behemoth at least forty minutes longer, paced twice so fast and tenfold more eventful, which doesn't take itself so dead seriously. Setting aside the modesty of her aspirations, Sigismondi is a Canadian who can't really comprehend the garish, frustrated zeitgeist of the United States during the nineteen hundred and seventies - it seems merely a faint cultural abstraction to her, and consequently, so is this band's appeal. Ultimately, this document is actually calculated to be far less fascinating, shocking, heartbreaking and funny than what actually went on, a vehicle to further the careers of young women who aren't a tenth as talented, intuitive, adventurous or attractive than the teenagers they're pretending to be. Bloated, obnoxious and deformed of representation though it was, even Oliver Stone's rightly vilified Doors biopic was enlivened by a sensational cast effortlessly likened to their counterparts in reality, and a production of attendant size. I'd sooner watch Stone's extravagant aberration than this flaccid account of a pioneering group who deserve far better.

With all my heart, I dearly hope that something like this never happens to Suzi Quatro.

Écrasez l'Infame.


Those seeking an alternative to this travesty have a wealth of entertaining resources at their disposal: Cherie Currie's autobiography, Neon Angel (chapters four through twenty-two of which were poorly adapted to the above reviewed sub-fiction); a blog comprised of Jackie Fox's stories of life in the band collected from her defunct website (which serves as a healthy and revealing counterpoint to the extravagant falsehoods presented in Currie's aforementioned bio); Vicki Blue's penetrating documentary in recount of The Runaways' success and decline, Edgeplay. All of these are far more informative and enjoyable than Sigismondi's feature.
Better still is Adrian Lyne's cult classic Foxes (Currie's film debut, co-starring with Jodie Foster), effusing the last wave of L.A.'s '70s teenie night life - an indirect exemplar of the local culture in which The Runaways thrived.

© 2011 Robert Buchanan

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