REVIEWED: THE RUNAWAYS
September 7, 2010 Leave a comment
In casting a biopic about Joan Jett and her band The Runaways, the first names to spring to mind probably aren’t Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. Stewart, though better known for her work as Bella in Twlight rather than her more nuanced roles in the likes of Adventureland, is in fact a snug fit playing feisty femme Jett, and if you can get over the seeming stunt casting of Fanning as her band mate Cherie Currie – for in fact, it isn’t stunt casting at all – then this is an engaging, albeit all-too familiar biopic.
Throwing us in at the onset of Jett’s fame, The Runaways introduces us to a rebellious young Jett (Stewart), donning the black leather and playing the electric guitar generally assigned to her male compatriots. Much to Joan’s disdain, her guitar teacher reminds her that “girls don’t play electric guitar”, but of course, all this does is provides her with the motivation she needs to brace herself against the social shackles of her time, ultimately becoming the rock icon we know her as today. Cherie Currie (Fanning), meanwhile, is a desolate, David Bowie-obsessed schoolgirl, her inner torment caused by myriad familial ills, most of all an alcoholic, absentee father. In music, however, she finds an outlet to express her anger with the world, and in setting up shop with Jett, develops a symbiotic relationship with her, running the gamut of every probable teenage female emotion.
The reason to see The Runaways is no doubt the performances, for Michael Shannon is especially illuminating as slimy record producer Kim Fowley, yet there’s the lingering feeling in most every dramatic beat that the girls just get it all a little too easily. As Jett meets Kim, they get acquainted and hit it off with just too much verve for us to really get emotionally or dramatically involved in any sense of struggle. Similarly, it is as though Kim simply picks Cherie out of a club at random to join the band, and even if this fairly unclimactic account is actually how it happened, it simply isn’t very exciting above all else. Furthermore, Currie’s family issues merely waddle into frame when there’s nothing else to discuss, quickly dashing through the exposition in the sort of matter-of-fact manner that comes off as false. Arguably a reaction to those inspidly sexxed-up and lengthily indulgent biopics, it nevertheless feels laboured and too eager to rinse through the drama efficiently rather than soak in the zeitgeist and embellish the moment, because least of all, the soundtrack is killer.
Unsurprisingly, those moments when the plotting is more lackadaiscal and casually paced are the best and most authentic; a lengthy scene in which we witness the band compose their hit “Cherrybomb” is very well done. Particularly great in this scene is Shannon, for though he is ultimately an explosive lech, he’s also oddly charming and quite funny. Further still, when the film occasionally engages with the social context of the women as products of their time, there are some refreshing scenes; Jett teaching a late-teen girl how to masturbate is especially amusing and telling.
By the half-way mark, the group seem to have settled well into their groove, and we wonder: what else will happen? The Runaways get signed and frankly it is all pretty rosy; there isn’t all that much conflict. The only means through which drama is injected is Curie’s tragic character, though equally if not more heartbreaking is the fleeting glimpse of Curie’s sister, who wants to escape her dire circumstances and flee with Cherie, yet she knows that she must attend to their chronic alcoholic father. However, these moments are just brief asides, and for the large part, it is the band’s on-again-off-again dynamic with Kim that keeps the film chugging along. Shannon is galvanisingly manic, and while he is indeed a pompous ass, he also encourages the girls’ Girl Power method, and so it is difficult to dislike him entirely. While these sections are more frequent, there are still long stretches that display nothing but adulation, and while perhaps it was largely a straight road for the girls, it just doesn’t make the most interesting of films. With the odd scene where the girls remind us that, yes, they are women, and the brief shot in which Cherie is updated on her ailing father over the phone, any notion of fighting against the odds is played pretty close to the chest.
Ideologically, there are some interesting ideas, though, particularly where the line of integrity in artistry lies, for Curie, who isn’t afraid to sell herself as a sex object, clashes with Jett, who is all about the music and nothing else. In an even more media-saturated society today, in which young girls on the onset of womanhood are increasingly exploited as tenuous sex objects, the film, for at least a moment, meditates on something profoundly thoughtful. The denouement is equally satisfactory, in terms of steering towards a more patient, elliptical style than the rest of the film. Fanning, in her devastating final scenes as Curie, absolutely grounds the film emotionally, and levies what might be the film’s one true instance of resonant character development.
Don’t expect a penetrating insight into the band, but solid performances from the three leads – even if Stewart’s Jett feels somewhat underwritten – steer things the the right way, and the general mix of great music and popping visuals keep this interesting enough, if not what it easily could have been.
The Runaways goes on general UK cinema release on Friday, September 10th.