Written and directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon
Running time: 109 minutes
The Runaways is a decidedly lopsided film about the hugely influential all-girl rock band who roared into life just on the crest of punk and combusted, as all legendary bands tend to do, before they ever reached their full potential.
The background of the film is that its screenplay is derived from (lead singer) Cherie Currie’s tell-all biography Neon Angel, but also has as one of its executive producers one Joan Jett, the leader of the band, and so we can presume that from the point of view of these two, at least, the real story of The Runaways is being told.
Fanning and Stewart are, frankly, miracle pieces of casting giving their best performances ever (Fanning we already knew was an adept actor, but who could have guess that Kristen Stewart had more to offer the world than Bella Swan?), totally submersing themselves in their roles and even actually singing most of the numbers performed. Apart from scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the two girls dominate not only the band but the entire movie.
Thus, it’s a pity that the movie focuses on only these two members of the band (and Fowley) so heavily. Drummer Sandie West (Stella Maeve) at least gets some decent screen time and a few lines, but Lita Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) just comes off as a permanently disgruntled bitch with the very few lines she’s given throughout the film, and the bassist (a made-up character called Robin, since actual bassist Jackie Fox chose not to be represented in the film, played by Alia Shawkat) doesn’t get so much as a single word of dialogue! Ford and “Robin” just disappear into the background for 99% of the film, and West only fares slightly better. It’s like trying to tell the story of the Beatles while ignoring George and Ringo and instead only focusing on John, Paul and Brian Epstein.
That said, seeing the formation of the band makes for an interesting first half, showing not just Currie’s upbringing but Jett’s as well (though the film’s version of the band forming and their early practicing is an out-of-sequence and fictionalized version of what actually occurred). Frankly, Fowley still has enough life story left over to make several more films just about him.
The backstory on Currie’s disintegrating family is interesting, but by the middle of the film we see where that’s all going and would rather stick to the band members (who’ve had a very illuminating introduction into the realities of first-tour experiences), but since half of the band are little more than window dressing we get more about Marie Currie, Cherie’s long-suffering sister, left behind to take care of their alcoholic dad. After the band experience great success in Japan, things begin to fall apart with Currie taking on too many drugs (etc) to really function, even as she and Jett begin a relationship.
Before you know it, the band are in the recording studio, Currie is having a breakdown, Lita Ford gets her big bitch scene and voila, the whole thing flies apart. In reality, this process took four years and three albums (with Currie) plus a final record with Jett on lead vocals before it came crashing down. The film leaves us with Jett ruminating on a solo career, and an awkward coda years later as Jett is being interviewed by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ (played over-the-top, if that’s actually possible with Bingenheimer, by Keir O’Donnell); Currie, who hasn’t spoken to Jett in years, phones in and stammers through some on-air awkwardness, then goes back to her job folding napkins.
Viewers who are not familiar with the background of the band and its actual breakdown are likely to be a bit confused by the abridgement and time compression of the film, which actually helps the film feel rather short at 109 minutes, but rock n roll is as much a feeling as it is a series of actions, so this film is probably as much of the real story as you’re ever likely to get, and the soundtrack (mostly reperformed Runaways songs, but there’s also some delicious Bowie, Stooges, Gary Glitter, MC5 and even a little Suzi Quatro in there as well) is pure gold.
The film itself is efficient and well-shot, covering a lot of ground pretty smoothly overall. Although there’s more dysfunctional family life in this one than you get in most rock band biopics, it still feels at times fairly mechanical in its run-through from origins to breakup, complete with “updates” on most of the characters at the end.
Despite having little to no “message” apart from “the rock lifestyle is fun, but don’t overdo the drugs, mmmkay?”, it’s good to see big-name stars actually put some acting blood on the line and do justice to the (limited scope of) the story for a change, and the music is killer, so ultimately I recommend you see the film. I somehow just don’t see Ford, West and Fox (et al) ever getting it together to tell you their side of the story, so eat what you’re given and enjoy The Runaways.