Starring Dakota Fanning, Kirsten Stewart, Riley Keough. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, 2009.
Ah, the 1970s. Weren’t they great? David Bowie, the groovy threads, all-girl rock bands, second wave feminism… But then again, some second-wavers were pretty racist, and let’s not forget the Lavendar Menace. Actually… when you think about it? Maybe they weren’t all that great.
The Runaways is based on the true story of the all-girl rock band of the same name, which brought the world Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, back in the “good ol’ days” of the 1970s. In it, we witness some really interesting critiques of the rock scene at the time, which unfortunately aren’t all that outdated. We learn why the brand of “chick” rock the Runaways helped create was so important, but also how dramatically different it was from the Riot Grrl scene in the 90s was; the DIY punk ethic, this is not. All members of the band can actually play their instruments, sure, but lead singer Currie is picked solely based on her looks (or rather, her “look”). A product being packaged.
(the runaways film still)
The strength of the film is definitely the take on teenage female sexuality, largely because it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film before. This is the story about a band of rocker chicks! And we don’t care about boys! We care about Joan, about Cherie, about their badass sexualities. And that’s the thing; none of that reductive boring heteronormative Hollywood shit. SPOILER ALERT! Joan and Cherie’s relationship is portrayed as a simple yet complicated professional partnership with lots of sexual tension… but never is it explicitly addressed or talked about by them, or by their other bandmates. They fuck, and that’s cool. Even in her other sexual adventures, Jett is portrayed as this man/woman-eating badass, whether it be on stage, after a show, or with a bandmate, but! she is never stuck with any kind of label; queer, or bisexual, or even slut… she just is who she is, seduces who she seduces, and we get to admire (or perhaps, aspire) to that level of bravado.
Early on in the film, we are exposed to exactly how hateable the band’s notorious producer Kim Fowley is, as he literally puts words in Cherie’s mouth and attempts to treat the band as his minions rather than as musicians or human beings. In fact, he’s easily the most misogynist character. But that’s what makes the story compelling and complex; the man so driven to create the world’s first major label all-girl rock band, singing lyrics like “I wanna be where the boys are/I wanna fight how the boys fight,” with band members who kick ass and take names, is largely created and managed by this… well, raging sexist douchebag.
However, The Runaways - artistically and story-telling style wise - really sits on the fence as to what genre it falls into. One minute it feels like it wants to be art-house cinema, with vague scene transitions, unexplained scenes and out of focus shots, and the next minute it is toeing the (pretty tired) “rock biopic/period piece” line. The treatment of drug abuse and excess is done beautifully on the visual side, but simultaneously it isn’t gritty enough. It ends up looking strangely glamourous - stranger still given the fact that Currie was 15 when she joined the band and her exposure to drugs and alcohol lead to a life-long battle with addiction.
Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie in The Runaways (Sigismondi, 2010) (the runaways film still)
That said, even with the stylized drug/alcohol scenes, it isn’t really all that visually stimulating as a movie. Given that it is (Montreal’s own) Sigismondi’s first full-length feature, I suppose those factors aren’t entirely unsurprising. I really do hope that Sigismondi takes up fiction for her next film. I think her craft and style would really shine through in a more free or even fantastic setting.
But, overall, there is more good than bad to be said of the Runaways. Fanning and Stewart deliver stellar performances and make for a captivating and empowering movie about young women who try to live their lives looking for adventure and striking a balance between fantasy and reality. Given the fact that these two young actresses are better known for their (pretty bland, pretty anti-feminist) characters in the Twilight franchise, I think audiences of all ages and tastes can give these two actresses a lot of credit for trying out these two rock icons for size.
While it could be interpreted as feminist thanks to the strong female leads, it still holds an interest for mainstream audiences and doesn’t hit you over the head with the “omg the rock scene was so sexist in the 70s! and now it’s perfect!” Instead, it makes you feel even more excited for the band when they make it, and the fact that everyone can sing along to a Joan Jett song, the person who was told that “girls don’t play electric guitars” back in 1977, and all the more exciting. The real power of the film lies with the true events that inspired it, and it does so without exploiting real people’s lives. It’s exciting to think that fans of Twilight might watch this film just because Stewart is in it, and will end up discovering an important part of women in rock history, and hey, might even be inspired to pick up an instrument. Now that would be really badass.
B-Sides: Suzi Quatro
Cherie Currie’s interview on Q
The Runaways official website