In the mid 1970s, an all-girl rock band from L.A. called The Runaways briefly flourished before self-destructing for the usual reasons: drugs, jealousy, not being very good, etc. The group helped kick the door open for other female rock singers and bands, but today it’s mostly remembered for being where solo artists Lita Ford and Joan Jett came from.
The film entitled “The Runaways,” written and directed by Floria Sigismondi (her first feature), tells the band’s story in a way that is perhaps all too appropriate. A flamboyant record producer named Kim Fowley assembled the band because he thought a group of sexy-tough teenage girls would be a good gimmick, not because of their musical ability, which was average. The film is likewise focused on style rather than substance, and it does nothing to distinguish itself from every other rock biopic.
The chief difference, in fact, is that “The Runaways” stars 15-year-old Dakota Fanning as 15-year-old Cherie Currie, the group’s lead singer and primary sex object. Is it a little creepy to see a jailbait rocker played by an overly sexualized jailbait actress? No. It is a LOT creepy. Casting a legal-age actress would have helped, although then there’s still the awkwardness of an 18-year-old being hired because she LOOKS 15 and sexy. And you can’t just omit Cherie’s sex appeal from a movie about The Runaways. That would be like omitting John Lennon from a movie about The Beatles.
As the film begins, in 1975, Cherie is lip-synching David Bowie at the school talent show and painting her face like a glam-rocker. She has an older sister, Marie (Riley Keough), who takes care of her in the absence of their flighty, melodramatic mother. (Mom is played by Tatum O’Neal, speaking of sexy teen actresses. Shouldn’t Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields be in this movie, too?) Their father is an alcoholic.
Meanwhile, a girl named Joan Larkin (Kristen Stewart), calling herself Joan Jett, is dying her hair black, buying a leather jacket, and telling her music teacher she wants to play the electric guitar. (“Girls don’t play the electric guitar,” he says simply.) She teams up with a drummer named Sandy West (Stella Maeve), and the two get the attention of impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who puts them with Cherie and a couple others — Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and a fictional/composite bass player called Robin (Alia Shawkat), neither of whom has more than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film — to become The Runaways.
Fowley suffers no delusions about the group’s abilities, nor does he hide his primary objective, which is to focus on the girls’ youth and beauty. He uses the word “jailbait,” and is overjoyed to have stumbled across such an edgy, marketable gimmick. He doesn’t care about breaking the rock ‘n’ roll glass ceiling. Quite the opposite: “This isn’t about women’s lib,” he says. “It’s about women’s libido.” Well said!
What follows is the usual story of some girls who could have used more parental supervision, who travel the world drinking and doing drugs, who engage in casual lesbianism, who change the face of rock music, kind of, at least in retrospect. But while Sigismondi recreates the era with the keen eye of a photographer and music-video director, she never conveys why The Runaways were important, or even why they were interesting. Their story appears to consist of nothing but the usual cycle of success followed by self-destruction. The band is jealous of the attention Cherie gets, they argue about everything, they do too many drugs, fame is too much for them, yada yada.
Fanning and Stewart, playing the two leads, are timid and lifeless much of the time, even during “intense” scenes. I kept thinking: Shouldn’t characters who take this many drugs be more interesting? But Michael Shannon livens up the place as Kim Fowley, the very picture of a movie character with presence. He steals every scene he’s in, deftly and with great humor — so much that I found myself wishing the movie were about him instead.
C (1 hr., 45 min.; )