Friday, April 9, 2010

The Runaways

"You know how many bands think they're going to make it," asks Marie Currie (Riley Keough) to her twin sister and frontwoman for The Runaways, Cherrie (Dakota Fanning), after questioning her new attitude and rock star status. Oh, it was like she could see the writing on the wall with that one question shared over a cigerette and TV dinners. For five years, The Runaways were either a novelty act or the West Coast, XX answer to bands like New York Dolls and The Stooges, depending on how you, personally, viewed 4-5 teenage girls playing a Punk-ish, Hard Rock sound in the mid-to-late 70's. This film dwells upon neither and is less about the band and more about the band's frontwomen, Cherrie Currie and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), and, to a degree, their relationship with their manager, Kim Fowley.

The story starts out with Currie and Jett in their separate lives surrounded by creeps and constant disappointment. Currie, an obsessed Bowie fanatic, coming from a broken home where she mainly hangs out with her twin sister and her creepy boyfriend, gets the occasional call from her alcoholic father while her mother is usually with her boyfriend. Currie's dream to be Bowie is explored during a 10th grade talent show of her quietly lip snycing and performing to Bowie's "Lady Grinning Soul" only to be met with laughter and garbage thrown on stage. Jett is a scrappy teenager, also from a broken home, who loves leather jackets and is curious about her sexuality. More than either, she wants to play electric guitar but is told by her guitar teacher that "girls don't play electric guitar."

One night, Jett spots Svengali producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) outside of a club and begins telling him about her wish to form an all girl band. He introduces her to the band's late drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve). They begin practicing with Fowley checking the band out and realizing the missing element is an doe-eyed, young blonde with attitude which they find in meeting Currie but who also does not deliver what was needed at first. From there, Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and "Robin" (Alia Shawkat) just appear as members. Soon, they play show after show, home and abroad, while growing up on the road and learning more about things already in their own lives such as sex, drugs, lesbianism and Rock 'n' Roll in that usual Behind The Music clichéd sort of way where everything is fun at first until the band completely crashes.

The film was well acted by its leads, Fanning and Stewart, who perform a great job of casting aside the cheesiness of their other job (cast members of the Twilight series) and show that they are capable of taking on tougher and more emotionally challenging roles. They successfully mirrored their real counterparts and their likenesses by studying their parts and becoming more of the person opposed to an actor just portraying the part. Casting two former child actresses who are still finding their style and voice as they get older was the perfect match for a band that struggled to do the same thing. As Currie, Fanning was more than capable of being the lost teenager with Bowie-esque dreams of stardom as much as she was effective as a emotionally battered, fallen rock star. Stewart brought the right amount of curiosity, hope and toughness  to the part. You really can not learn this from Joan Jett and not be Joan Jett in the process (to which Jett has praised her portrayal).

The only thing better than the acting was the soundtrack. The Stooges, MC5, David Bowie, and The Runaways are just a small taste of the awesome dirty and glam sounds you can expect to hear throughout the film. On top of the original recordings by The Runaways are also versions re-recorded by Fanning and Jett. Granted, Currie and Jett were actual singers but the actresses definitely pulled their own weight vocally. The former Runaways worked with them to provide the best and vocal tracks for their likeness and it pays off. They sound close enough to the younger versions of the former bandmates without turning it into a parody or cheap clone. Do not be surprised if, one day, you see them in bands or releasing.    

While the film was well acted, especially from Fanning and Stewart, the soundtrack was great and shot beautifully, it suffered from a lack of well...The Runaways. The biggest gripe I have with the film is that it really has nothing to do with the band and more to do with Currie and Jett's interactions with each other and everyone around them. Because of this, the rest of the band suffers a bit. They really could have been replaced by all fictional characters and you would not even know. Strangely, Jackie Fox was replaced by a fictional character named Robin and only time you know she ever exists is in a passing shot during a performance or a handful of times where she has a line or is mentioned.

The film was based on Currie's memoir, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, and leaves it at that. The film should have incorporated elements of that book along with stories given by the bandmembers in the excellent documentary, Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. The documentary has all the edgeiness and dirt that the film only flirts with. There was not enough of the abuse, manipulation and teenage curiosity in the film that each of the members minus Jett discuss in the documentary. In Edgeplay, the band was more (no pun intended) fleshed out. You could really sense that they felt this going to be a big deal and wanted it to be a big deal but was ultimately disappointed, in the end, mainly due to all the male adults involved with the band. A combination of the two would have made for a more interesting and complete film worthy of the band's namesake. Instead, you now get a film that gets to the halfpoint in the band's brief career and then quickly wraps everything up.

The Runaways, as a whole, is good film. Other than the soundtrack, you will not be wowed by the film but you will be pleasently surprised that it is better than you would expect. Fanning and Stewart did an awesome job of portraying their counterparts as did Michael Shannon as the sleazy Kim Fowley. Still, the film could have been grittier and Fowley sleazier.  The lack of development in the other members in the band hinders the film just a little bit and brings the film to a very quick ending. After all, I would not want a film about MC Hammer that did not include his ill-fated turn into Gangsta Rap and speedos. Nonetheless, the film is worth a viewing and I would give it 3 out of 5 stars but would highly recommend a viewing of Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways afterward. There were two more albums after Currie and they deserve their respect.


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