“This isn’t about women’s lib, kiddies, it’s about women’s libido,” sneers The Runaways’ scene-stealing, trash-talking manager, Kim Fowley.
And he’s not that far off. It is not to say that The Runaways haven’t earned their rightful place in rock and roll history, but for a band who was often dismissed by their contemporaries as a crass marketing gimmick, time has certainly been kind to these ‘kiddies’. Nowadays, The Runaways are widely regarded as counterculture icons that blazed a hell-raising, jailbaiting trail of postmodern empowerment and pre-punk aesthetics.
From the film’s opening frame, where a blot of menstrual blood spatters the cracked pavement between Cherie Currie’s feet, this movie has The End of Innocence written all over it. And so begins the feature film debut of Canadian-raised music-video director, Floria Sigismondi. Based on the 1987 memoir, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story, this biopic is less about the first all-girl rock band, as it is about Currie’s own tragic transition into womanhood, co-starring Joan Jett.
This refreshingly frank script begins with the troubled back story of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and her decision to leave behind her alcoholic parent and twin sibling in order to change her life through rock and roll. Meanwhile, co-founder of The Runaways, Joan Jett (Kirsten Stewart) is also loose upon the streets of Los Angeles, plotting ways to find a foothold for her all-female band. Eventually, Currie and Jett meet through a contact from their future-manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), and the band begins the long, hard process of earning respectability.
Rehearsing in a crummy trailer, the girls are hit by bottles, cans, dirt, and dog crap, some of which were even tossed by the calculatingly malicious Kim and his various toadies. It’s not long however, before the appropriate ruckuses were started, and the girls were touring Japan, and approaching something akin to Beatlemania. And this wild ride is only fuelled by a stellar soundtrack, complete with live recordings sung by Fanning and Stewart, whose vocals grow sexier, darker and more cynical with every performance – particularly in a standout concert performance of Cherry Bomb –the song that would carry the group to fleeting international fame.
Before long, Cherie’s overindulgence in drugs and sexuality gets the better of her, and she breaks down in a way that only a true rock and roller ever can. All the while, Joan Jett appears to be, consciously or not, fanning the flames of her band mate’s demise in order to seize a part of the spotlight. Remember, this film is less a biopic on The Runaways, as it is a relationship between the two key members. As a result, other band mates like lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) only provide a flickering background presence. In fact, the group even includes one fictional member, Robin Robins (Alia Shawkat) who speaks only a handful of lines in a throwaway role that amalgamates the band’s various ex-bassists.
Instead of focusing the lens on the runaway success of the band’s most successful member, Joan Jett, the film sheds some light on the haunted past of the band only real runaway, Cherie Currie. Some may argue that writer/director Sigismondi went with the wrong girl, and that a Joan Jett and the Blackhearts biopic, fronted by the surprisingly capable Kirsten Stewart, might have made the more accessible movie. But this reviewer would argue that raw failures of Cherie Currie’s past make her a more sympathetic hero – one whose experiences and legacy could be revered and pitied in equal measure.