The Runaways were a peculiar phenomenon. They were less of a band than a product, and the product they sold was teen rebellion. The five-girl band was fronted by sixteen year old Cherie Currie, Joan Jett was on tousled mop and rhythm guitar, Lita Ford played lead, Sandy West was the drummer, and they had a revolving door for the many bass players that came and went. They were created by Kim Fowley, a refugee of the psychedelic Sixties, who put them together in 1975. He taught them to be aggressive, sexy — no bras allowed — and jailbait. The songs weren’t important, although the ‘Cherry Bomb’ single became well-known. As far as popularity goes, they were so-so in America, lesser-known in Britain, and perhaps the original ‘Big in Japan’ band. Currie wrote a book about her time in The Runaways and this movie is an adaptation of it.
It’s too bad that The New York Dolls got there first: Too Much, Too Soon would have been a perfect title for The Runaways. One minute, fifteen-year-old Currie is miming Bowie at a school talent show, the next she’s being hand-chosen by Fowley to front the band merely because he liked her image. Whether she could sing or not was an afterthought. The band lasted for less than three years, but what a three years they were. Fowley’s machinations got them front and centre in the American press in a model aped by Malcolm McLaren a year later; they made two albums (just like the Dolls, incidentally); had a phenomenal — and unchaperoned — tour of Japan; and because of the lack of any formal management they lived that famous rock-star euphemism: they experimented with drugs.
We see all of this in The Runaways, but we only get Currie and to a lesser extent Jett’s side of the story. The other three members of the band are pretty much non-existent, as far as this movie is concerned. So, we learn that Currie had an alcoholic father, a sister who wanted to be just like her, and a mother who all but abandoned her by moving to Indonesia with her new husband. Currie was a sweet girl, but with the rebellious streak that fifteen-year old girls have. Even with that rebellion she was uncomfortable selling Fowley’s ideas (unlike Jett who embraced them). As time passed, Currie was coerced into using her body for publicity — one Hustler-type photo shoot (arranged by Fowley) was a major contributing factor in their Japanese success — and the drugs just followed on as sure as night follows day. Allegedly, all of the members of The Runaways slept with each other at some point, but the movie concentrates solely on her affair with Jett, with the latter instigating the tryst. Having said that, the matter of sex is treated conservatively in this movie — I was almost expecting the camera to slide right to a burning fireplace at one point during their clinch — but in all fairness Dakota Fanning, as Currie, was herself fifteen at the time of this movie’s filming so allowances should be made. She captures Currie’s lack of certainty well, and is well cast. Kristen Stewart, as Jett, fares even better. Do not dismiss this actress lightly just because she’s the star of the teen-favorite Twilight series; she nails Jett’s style perfectly. Watching her perform Jett’s hunched guitar style onstage was spookily accurate. Rounding the trio off is the ever-dependable Michael Shannon, as Fowley. Here is an actor of great range. One only has to look at three of his roles to see how versatile he is — compare Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road and now this. Here he’s high camp, loud and brash, and peps up every scene he’s in.
Whether or not much of this story is true is open to debate, but I suspect that Currie and Jett have been captured in a more favorable light, which is understandable when you consider that one wrote the book and the other is the executive producer of the movie. First-time director and music-video stalwart Floria Sigismondi shot the film with an edgy, punky look in keeping with the subject matter, but not so much that it takes away from the story. I guess my only real problem with the movie is that it’s fairly mundane for the music biopic; band gets together, make it big, do drugs, fame goes to their heads, rifts develop, band splits up, end credits. I’m loathe to call The Runaways inventors of girl-rock as there were many before them — like the splendidly named Fanny, for example — but the influence they had on later bands like L7 or particularly The Donnas is undeniable. For people interested in music history, of which I am undeniably one, The Runaways is a film worth seeing. As Fowley tells Currie, “This is controversy, this is publicity, this is a juicy story. It’s all about press, not about prestige.”
At the end of the movie, ‘Where Are They Now’ captions tell us that Currie is now a chainsaw artist (ahem), Jett still performs, and Fowley can still be spotted in LA. There is no mention of any of the others. Now why on earth could that be?