THE REWATCH: The Runaways (2010)
It's difficult to write about this movie without facing up to some hard truths about rock music, about the scarcity of female-driven features in the early aughts, and about the limitations of biopics in general. Floria Sigismondi's feature-length directorial debut, The Runaways takes all those hard truths, mixes them in a blender, and serves them up for you in a cracked, lipstick-smudged chalice.
First, some background. I read Cherie Currie's biography Neon Angel back in 2006, some three years before The Runaways was released. I had actually first learned about the band five years before that in 2001 while I was a college student. I had a neighbor down the hall who loved the prolific metal guitarist, Lita Ford. At the time, my awareness of metal extended just to some cursory knowledge of Guns 'N Roses and Metallica. I knew nothing of Ms. Ford. I believe I was actually surprised to see that she'd been around a long time.
A little digging produced another surprise -- She was in a band in the mid '70s called The Runaways with Joan Jett. Now I knew Joan Jett from her own band, The Blackhearts, and I'd heard the song "Cherry Bomb" before (thanks, Dazed and Confused!) but I never knew there was a connection. After that revelation, my obsession with The Runaways was born. I'd spend the intervening years between my "discovery" of the band and the release of the movie reading Currie's book, watching the excellent documentary Edgeplay, writing a spec biopic script about the rise and fall of the group, and listening to every song the band ever recorded.
Finally, news broke that the movie had been green-lit. Kristen Stewart would soon be cast as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning would be Cherie Currie.
Now. Children. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that watching this movie the first time in the theater was both a riveting AND frustrating experience for me. Original bassist, Jackie Fox was not involved in the production, despite the fact that she was one of the founding members of the band. The producers had cooperation from Jett and Currie, but without Fox's permission, they couldn't include her in the film. Alia Shawkat was cast as a placeholder-- a bass player named "Robin Robins." Who didn't have any lines. So that was a strike.
Cherie Currie was the lead singer of the band and had a characteristic roar that was unmistakably rock-n-roll. Fanning actually sang on the soundtrack, so we were treated to The Runaways' signature songs presented with her far more "girly," poppy, high-pitched sing-talking. Strike two.
Kristen Stewart really did try to inhabit the role of Joan Jett, and I actually think hers was the most convincing performance outside of Michael Shannon's Kim Fowley (more on him later). Of course, it did take some convincing, since at the time, she was mostly known as the Queen of Twilight, and her feral performance as Jett was mostly mumbling and cursing and growling. Strike three.
THE REWATCH EFFECT:
This time, I watched the movie and felt a little more open-minded about it. In the years since The Runaways was released, we've seen a cultural shift when it comes to how women (especially young women) are depicted in our media. The expectation to make them multi-faceted and real has been fully established, so I was happy to be reminded that this movie totally did that. While it did skim through (or skip altogether) some moments from the book that I thought were very important (Currie's sexual assault, her painful separation from her mother, and her disappointing meeting with her idol David Bowie), the film at least tried to make a statement about women in rock-n-roll and the svengalism that often pushed them to the forefront.
Which brings us to Kim Fowley. In the years since the movie was released, there have been some revelations about Fowley that I choose not to print here as they are alleged accounts. However, they really do cast a shadow over Shannon's whimsically manic interpretation of the man. It's hard to watch the movie again, a mere 7 years later and not see the real Fowley exactly how he was depicted in the film -- an exacting, cruel, selfish, bombastic misogynist -- while ignoring the "isn't-he-wacky?" nudges that the filmmaker repeatedly relies upon. As a result, the movie version of Fowley is a LOT harder to enjoy than ever before. And since so much of the comic relief hinges on this character, it makes The Runaways harder to enjoy as well.
Despite all this... I still have a soft spot in my heart for The Runaways. The music is killer, and the editing is dope. The performances are *mostly* strong, and it looks spectacular. I LOVE this movie for existing. But I HATE this movie for not taking things far enough.