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We're reprinting this review from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to coincide with The Runaways theatrical release this weekend.
By: Kevin Kelly
I'll be blunt about this: I really wasn't looking forward to this movie. I'm not the biggest fan of lip-chewing, hair-twirling Kristen Stewart, or the wide-eyed, blank face expert Dakota Fanning. I love rock and roll (so put another dime in the jukebox, baby) as much as the next person, but these two starring in a movie about an all-girl, teen sensation, flash in the pan band from the 1970s? I just didn't think they could pull it off. Hey, at least I'm big enough to admit I was wrong. The Runaways rocked the Joan Jett / Cherie Currie backstory's pants off (literally), and I'll be buying the soundtrack, which features K-Stew and D-Fan singing the blasts from the past.
However, this movie really should have been called The Joan Jett & Cherie Currie Show, because the other Runaways are hardly featured in this movie at all. Sandy West (who co-founded the band with Joan Jett), and Lita Ford's stories aren't given much attention in the film, and Ford seems to exist just to cause drama. Additionally, The Runaways had six different bass players during their short four-year history (including Micki Steele who went on to The Bangles) so the filmmakers decided to create a fictional girl named Robin Robins. She's played by Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame, and she unfortunately gets only one or two lines.
Although he's not given as much screen time as Fanning and Stewart, Michael Shannon takes this movie, straps it to his back, and walks away with it completely. He plays their over the top manager Kim Fowley, and he looks like Frankenstein meets David Bowie. He chews up scenery left and right and steals every moment he's onscreen, even when he has no lines. At one point, he just gives a monsterly grimace on the other end of a phone call, and owns that entire moment. When he realizes he's bottled the lightning, he caws "You bitches are gonna be bigger than the f**king Beatles!" Although the relationship between Currie and Jett is caustic at times, Fowley is definitely the bad guy in this movie.
In the effort of cramming their story into two hours, the film rushes through the Joan Jett story as she rags on her guitar teacher for trying to instruct her with "On Top Of Old Smoky" and telling her "Girls don't play electric guitar." In a blink, she's meeting Kim Fowley at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco in Hollywood, and Fowley, smelling money and opportunity, introduces Jett to drummer Sandy West. They start jamming with Fowley listening, who is seemingly coked to the gills with a bent towards pedophilia. He decides the band needs, as he so eloquently illustrates with his finger pointed at a woman's crotch, more sex. He and Jett go trolling for the face of the band back at Bingenheimer's, where they find Mountain Dew-sipping Fanning, complete with feathered-blonde hair, and ask her to audition.
Fast-forward to Jett and West now with Lita Ford and their fictitious bass player rehearsing in a ramshackle trailer in the Valley. Currie shows up to audition, having rehearsed a Suzi Quatro cover song all night, but Fowley quickly nixes it. They end up writing "Cherry Bomb" on the spot, and with some coaxing, Currie nails it. Then he puts the girls through rock and roll boot camp, which includes teenaged boys throwing trash and dogshit at them, so they can learn how to deal with hecklers. With lightning speed, they're off and running, playing parties in Los Angeles, hitting the road for shows, cutting a record, and touring Japan.
But the real story takes place in the cracks between the electric soundtrack. Kristen Stewart steps out of her normal angsty girl act and nails down the punk rock, hard as nails Jett, and Fanning is equally as good with her disconnected portrayal of Currie, who is dealing with the fact that she's abandoning her alcoholic father and her twin sister Marie (played as fraternal in the movie, although they were identical in real life) to embrace a life of rock and roll. It's not long before the girls are full-on in the swing of drugs while on the road, and Fanning and Stewart share an extremely intimate kiss on the floor of a skating rink before the camera swirls them up into a heavily implied sex scene, which is something the movie doesn't shy away from. We see Fowley banging some woman while on a phone call, Currie having sex in a dressing room, and Jett teaching Sandy West how to masturbate ... to Farrah Fawcett.
The Runaways flamed out in four quick years, although that timeline feels a lot shorter in this film. By the time the band begins to break up, it only feels like a few months have passed, and that's the only real fault in the movie. To try and keep this under two hours long, they've compacted four years of the first influential, teenaged, all-girl rock band into the Almost Famous story. By the end of the film, Jett is enjoying the rise of her solo fame, and Currie has taken a different path. There are crawls telling us what happened to Jett, Currie, and Fowley, but no mention of the other Runaways, which mirrors the movie. Powerful performances from Stewart, Fanning, and Shannon, and a song showcase that puts in bold what the Runaways were all about, while giving a bit of short shrift to the other band members. These girls were, for a very short time, the Queens of Noise. Fanning's concert performance of "Cherry Bomb" will be ringing in your ears for days.
One final note: Beware Twihards and Twi-Moms, this is not your sweet and innocent Bella. Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett urinates on electric guitars, pops pills, snorts coke, and loves other ladies. Just a fair warning.
For more on The Runaways, check out our interview with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and also our video chat with Michael Shannon.