Sunday, 18 July 2010
Don't runaway from Dakota and Kristen
The Runaways tells the story of the formation and fairly quick self-destruction of the mid-70’s all girl rock band of the same name.
Until recently I’d never even heard of them. But quite by coincidence a book I was reading last year featured The Runaways as the favourite band of the female protagonist. Through that book I learned that The Runaways was the band that gave the world Joan Jett along with fellow lady rocker Lita Ford. However I knew nothing of the bands then fifteen-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie. Which is not too surprising seeing as how after being led down the rock and roll highway of drink, drugs and self-destruction, Currie was mostly lost to rehab and low budget movie acting. Eventually she went on to become a drug counsellor for addicted teens and a personal fitness trainer amongst other things. Apparently she still makes music on occasion but is mostly now a ‘chainsaw artist’ whatever that is.
Anyway, I've since discovered that The Runaways were important for three main reasons:
1) They were the first all-girl rock band to be signed and who mixed it up just as well as any guys at the time and as such were highly influential in helping other women get in to the world of rock music.
2) They were a huge success for a fairly short time, making quite an impact - especially overseas and specifically in Japan, where they were truly massive.
3) Their songs and their performances are mostly great with a real snarling, gritty ‘fuck you’ rock and roll attitude, something Jett would carry in to her highly successful post-Runaways career. Perhaps the bands best-known track “Cherry Bomb” is a prime example – a simple, grungy, punky, pulsing anthem for bad girls everywhere.
And now, more than thirty years after they split, we finally get their movie biopic. So is it any good?
Yep, it’s pretty good.
As with most movie adaptations, The Runaways, based loosely on Cherie Currie’s own book Neon Angel, plays rather fast and loose with the truth - condensing time, amalgamating characters, creating scenes for dramatic effect. But from what I hear, the essentials of the tale are pretty much there with the film wisely focusing on the relationship between Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Currie (Dakota Fanning).
It is 1975 and Joan Larkin (soon to be renamed Joan Jett) is a tough, passionate, leather wearing, guitar playing seventeen-year-old rocker who idolises Suzi Quatro. Joan is all about the music. She is dedicated and works hard to be successful though still finds time to party. In contrast, fifteen-year-old Cherie Currie starts the film as a cute blond haired girl who loves David Bowie and hangs out in clubs trying to look stylish, glamorous and all sultry sex kittenish. Later, after having joined the band through what seems like pure chance, she becomes a scantily clad teenage temptress consuming drugs and booze by the bucket load while being continually torn between her family life (a caring sister and alcoholic father) and the life of a hedonistic rock star. In this telling of the story the rest of the band doesn’t get much of a look in. Even Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton) is reduced to being bitchy from the sidelines. But that’s okay. For this is all about that central dynamic of Jett and Currie with most of the focus being on Currie. Though Jett is well served, we don’t get to know much about her past, just that she is a badass and a dedicated tomboy rocker who loves leather and making out with both guys and girls. It is Currie who is the film’s primary focus. This is really her story focussing on her family life, her background and her choices.
As Cherie Currie, Dakota Fanning is excellent, just as you’d expect her to be. She captures spot on Currie’s troubling jailbait sex appeal (played up by the band’s manager and the media of the time.) But just as importantly she captures Currie’s little girl lost persona, her conflicted nature and her deep vulnerability. It has to be said that watching Fanning wearing next to nothing, strutting and writing around on stage, making out with boys and girls while swigging booze and popping pills by the dozen is a rather disturbing sight. To me, she will always be that freakishly talented and sweet little girl who captured the screen and acted many of her co-stars off of it in films like Man on Fire, War of the Worlds and Hide and Seek. Still, all little girls have to grow up I guess. Just hopefully not how Cherie Currie did. With all the stuff that is going on in The Runaways you have to remember that Cherie Currie was only a kid, a fifteen-year-old kid.
As Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart is also excellent. She looks the dead spit of the real rocker and carries off Jett’s confident, swaggering, angry, tough girl persona pretty much perfectly. You really wouldn’t wanna piss her off. She has a strange relationship with Fanning’s Currie, one of quasi-big sister/ mentor/lover. Despite being almost polar opposites, they form a pretty close and strong bond with Jett always sticking up for Currie even when the latter is behaving less than well. As Jett, Stewart shows that she really is a good actress and is worth much more than just being known as the rather pathetic, whiny and thoroughly unlikable Bella Swan. She has range and presence and will hopefully get to show more of it in years to come once a certain franchise is dead and buried.
The films other notable performance comes from Michael Shannon as The Runaways sleazy manager/producer Kim Fowley. The film does a good job in showing the relationship between Fowley and the band that he helped put together. As Fowley, Shannon is most entertaining playing such a colourful character. His angry, filthy rants at the band while they practice are both funny and horrible. But, to be fair, the guy knew what he was talking about. It might not have been nice advice, but in order to succeed the girls had to toughen up. They had to learn to give not only as good as they got but more than they got. And that’s exactly what they did.
The Runaways was written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, an Italian photographer and music video director best known for directing Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People". Sigismondi’s script is a fairly typical bare bones rise and fall of a rock band story, one that we’ve all seen and heard many times before. Like most of these tales, the truth is massaged in places to make it more workable as a film, to better fit the narrative of cinema. The script, though fine, brings nothing new or special to the genre. But what Sigismondi does bring to The Runaways are two excellent lead actresses and a strong visual style filled with dirty colours and jittery camerawork. She also captures the period feel and puts across the energy of rock and roll with all its vibrant passion and grim excess.
Despite the fairly run-of-the-mill, self-destructive nature of the story, there is a lot of fun to be had watching The Runaways. The girls are all cool with two excellent leads in Fanning and Stewart. The music is fun, energetic and in your face. And the spirit of true rebellious attitude and hard living rock and roll does indeed shine through. Though not a great movie by any means, The Runaways is certainly a good movie. It is never dull and it is always fun to watch… even if the sight of once sweet little Dakota in full-on drug addled, scantily clad, sexy temptress mode is decidedly creepy and off putting. (3.5/5)