Joan Jett may sing "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," but the real message of her life story is that she lived rock and roll, and still does every day. She has a brand new Greatest Hits album available through her Blackheart Records, she's constantly touring with the Blackhearts, and she even has her own iPhone app. But you're seeing her on this side of success. The Runaways is a movie about Jett before she became famous, how she had to fight to make her own opportunities, and how she was told that girls shouldn't play electric guitar.
Although Kristen Stewart portrays Joan Jett in the film, Jett was frequently on set giving her directions. She's very happy with the end result of both Stewart's performance and the story the film tells. We spoke to Jett at Sundance this year, where she managed to exude enthusiasm for the film, while also quietly being one of the coolest people in town. Seriously, rock and roll seeps out of her pores. Read on through for the full interview.
How did this project start with you and how odd was it, or cool was it seeing Kristen Stewart playing you on screen?
How'd the project start? Well, it was actually a long process. It started with Cherie Currie's book. She had written a book about her life in The Runaways and then some things that occurred to her afterwards. Kenny Laguna, my partner, my songwriting partner and producer was trying to help her get it published. So, he'd gone around to different publishers and they had trouble, you know, getting it published or getting any sort of response. So then Kenny thought ... I think this was his idea of getting The Runaways into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or something. And then he thought, like, "What about a TV movie?" Lifetime, or something like that, and then went to MTV, thinking maybe they'll do it. They weren't really interested.
It came around and somehow we got hooked up with J.T. Leroy. Does anybody know that story? J.T. Leroy, the author who had a couple of best selling books on the New York Times best seller list and he was supposed to be a 16 year old prostitute who's mother was a junkie and whored him out or something and it turned out to be two 50 year old women. So once that all happened, then obviously Leroy wasn't the one that was going to write the screenplay. I'm not sure of the exact details, but it came around to the Linson's attention and they were interested in pursuing it and they brought Floria Sigismondi on board to write the screenplay.
At that point, I guess I started to take it seriously and to really think about, "Was I into it?" Once I decided yes, I was into it. I felt like there's great people behind it. They've got quite a track record and I would like to see The Runaways done justice because it's something that means so much to me. So, yeah, to get to your question about Kristen, I think she's a really real person. She's authentic. She cared about it. It wasn't just a gig. It wasn't like, "Okay, I'm gonna do this role blah, blah, blah and in a few months then go do something else." I mean, she cut off her hair. She really immersed herself in it. I don't mean to put words in her mouth, but what I get is that she feels she has to do it justice, whatever that means. She knows The Runaways have fans. She knows I have fans and she was concerned about being authentic. And I found her to be wonderful to be around. We got along great. It was really scary when you see us together, physically. The energy is so similar, the way we move, the way our hands move, our hair, the way that we talk, the way we start and don't finish sentences. I mean it's really bizarre, you know, but in a great way. Yes saw the movie, right?
So when you see Kristen singing, that's really her singing. When you see Kristen's Joan singing, and same thing for Dakota and Cherie. You know, I think they did an incredible job and, you know, I just keep saying the same thing. I was very proud.
So no one had approached you all about making a movie about The Runaways before?
No, not in this sense, no.
That's surprising because it is such an engaging story.
Well, you have to remember. I think people see that it's an engaging story now, but all along, The Runways were just really dismissed except for the people who were fans and maybe saw them or understood what it meant and what it was about. I know music is subjective. I know that everyone's not going to like exactly what we do. It's more about breaking down barriers and boundaries. I was told as a five year old, by my parents, that I could be anything I wanted and I took it to heart. I never thought twice about roles and like, "Oh, I'm a woman. I'm a girl so I can't do that."
I wanted to be an astronaut, an archaeologist, you know, all sorts of things before I got to school and I got in chorus class. I was in drama, wanted to be an actor. And all of a sudden, you start listening to... you go from Donny Osmond to rock and roll, listen to All Right Now, Smoke on the Water, oh my God, I want to make those sounds. Mom, Dad, can I have a guitar for Christmas? They get it for you. Now I got to learn this thing. So you play to your records and figure it out. And then my family moved to California so I could actually make this thing happen.
So they supported you as an artist and even at that age?
They were supportive, yes. Actually, my parents separated at that point, so I think it might have been harder if my father knew I was going into Hollywood all the time. He might not have been as supportive as my mother, but my mother was very supportive.
Because we don't see your parents in the film.
Yeah, you can't really tell from the film what kind of relationship I had with my family, but this wasn't about rebelling against my family, and my family and I get along great. It wasn't about rebelling against school. I love school. I was a great student. It was more about rebelling against what people tell you can't do. I'm a good person. I'm not hurting anybody. I'm trying to make music. I mean, what's the big deal being told, "You can't play rock and roll." I'm trying to figure out, "What does that mean? You saying girls can't master the instruments? I'm in school with girls playing cello and violin, Bach and Beethoven. What are you saying?" What you're saying is socially, girls aren't allowed to play rock and roll because it's sexual. Think of Sticky Fingers' cover. Robert Plant, those stances with him with his shirt open and the microphone. Think of singles, like "Whole Lotta Love." Go back and listen to it and listen how dirty that stuff is. And I wanted to do that. It wasn't just about sex. It was just about owning who you were, but it was everybody else that was sort of focusing on that.
It seems like The Runaways inspired a lot of girl bands that came later. Do you think that's still the case?
Well, I think there actually have been a lot of women out there doing it. I mean, The Runways didn't really get a lot of recognition, and certainly not in America, you know. It was sort of, everybody looks back and reflects and goes, "Oh, yeah. I see the influence now." But I mean, there was a lot of girl bands in the '90s that came real close to breaking through. And there are all-girl bands in every town. When we played on the Warped tour in 2006, I met people in every city and they're good. It's just ... I don't really know why. I think people are threatened. I'm trying to figure out what that threat is. I think it's got to do with that owning it thing, girls playing guitar, playing drums. The second thing is, I think girls live a little bit more in their self-esteem. And people are mean. I mean, they're mean to everyone, men, women. They shoot down your dreams. They don't just say, "Oh, what are you doing?" They say, "What are you doing? [said sarcastically] Why are you doing that?"
No matter who you are, once you break the mold and you're doing something different and trying to follow your dreams, all of a sudden, you know they try and demean you and make you feel bad about following your dreams. And for women, and girls especially, who are developing and trying to figure out who they are, you know, being told you're a cunt, you're a dyke, you're a slut, you whore. Because you're playing a guitar? I mean, it's ridiculous. So I think that a lot of people, a lot of women might just say after awhile, after getting this, maybe getting spit on, yelled at during shows and people saying things, giggling, laughing at you, bands not giving you sound checks because you're a girl. They go, "I'm gonna do something else. This isn't worth it. I'm just trying to play music and it's just not worth it." But for me, I threw in my lot at 16 and this is what it was about until I was absolutely forced to take another course and that never really happened, you know, so, thankfully, for me.
Do you have artists who thank you for what you did?
All the time. Both the people that are unknown and people that are known. It's extremely, extremely humbling just to know that you connect with people, because that's really what it's about. It's about that connection, looking in people's eyes and making them smile and just having that moment and going, "Wow." I think back to bands I saw ... if somebody in the band looked in my direction, or you caught a pick or something. You know, I stole David Johansen's empty beer bottle off the stage when I like 14 and saw The New York Dolls. You know, stuff like that. It's all these little moments that people hold forever. They remember it forever and I think that's another reason the song " I Love Rock 'n' Roll" resonates because it reminds people of something good, a fun time they were having. So, it's an explosion.
Do you think audiences still have that passion for rock and roll?
Well, I think that the whole concept of rock and roll, I'm kind of wondering what it means anymore. It's become a uniform, almost. It's like, first of all, I don't mean to say anything negatively towards you specifically, but the press has taken the word 'Rock' and destroyed it. Food rocks. Clothes rock. Pop stars rock. No, pop stars pop. Rock stars rock. You know what I mean? It's like they destroyed the word. It means nothing so you might as well just stop using it in context with music. You should just call them, I don't know. I don't know what the new word will be but it should be something else.
I think there's a lot of people out there that still have it, but they're the ones doing it unseen. They're the ones in the basements, in the clubs, toiling, to me, the way you should be doing it because that stuff's face to face. You can use the Internet and the tech media to help get the word out, but it shouldn't be the main thing. You got to get your ass out on the road, play all the clubs. Yes, it's hard work. That's what it is. It's work. It's work. It's not like, "Oh, I'm in a band and now I'm a rock star and I'm going to be treated well." No. It's not one of the things that people go, "Oh, let's see. Maybe I can make some money doing this. Let me get the dress and get a way to work my way in there." And it's not real. It's not connected to something because you've got to do it, you got to make those sounds. You know what I mean?
You started your own label, was that to try and take other female artists under your wing?
We actually have our own label, Blackheart Records. It's over 25 years old now. That stems out of me being dismissed and sending not one hit, but four hits, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll, "Do You Want to Touch Me?," "Bad Reputation" and "Crimson and Clover" and 23 majors and minors. I still have the rejection letters saying, "Interesting artist. No good songs. Maybe she should lose the guitar." All these different things. "Not right at this time." Now you're not just talking about listening to songs. They missed "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." They said no hits. "Crimson and Clover" or "Touch Me" Either they don't listen to what they get or they can't hear hits for real, or they can't hear rock and roll hits. So, we had to create our own thing. So Kenny, my partner, used his baby daughter's college fund, which was a few thousand dollars at the time, and we printed up like 150 records and sold them out of the trunk of our car at gigs. And it caught on.
This is when you could still have regional hits, when you could still call into radio stations and they'd play your requests. You would have like, you know, northeast hits, or something would be a hit in the southeast. But anyway, the fans had power, so word would spread. And so we played a lot in the northeast and the records kept selling and so finally we created Blackheart Records. It was out of the trunk of Kenny's caddy. But now here we are, 25 years later and I have an opportunity to sign bands and put them out, and we do that. We want to be a place where girls can feel comfortable to come, but it's not like it has to be an all girl band. We've got a band called Girl In A Coma right now. They've just released their second album. And a band called the Dollyrots out of Los Angeles. There were a couple of other bands. The Vacancies who I think has since broken up. And a band called The Eyeliners who were out of New Mexico.
Was there stuff that got cut that you would have liked to have kept in there that maybe we'll see on the DVD when it comes out?
No, I think that anything that was cut definitely helped tighten the movie up. You know, it is a movie. I think that it's not a literal story of The Runaways, of how they got together and went through the whole thing. But I think it's a great story and it definitely tells The Runaways' story to a degree. I mean, I would have liked it to be five hours long, you know, every little detail. But that's not the way it works. But I was very happy.
Note: This interview was part of a roundtable that Cinematical took part in at Sundance 2010 with a handful of other writers. Not all of the questions were asked by us.