January 29th, 2010
Either The Runaways are very popular here in Madison or folks were lured by the exclusive one-night roadshowing of Floria Sigismondi’s film, ostensibly about the band. Regardless, the showing was sold out and the theatre packed last night. In attendance were such local luminaries as Dave Zero, Kenneth Burns, Emily Mills, and Rob Thomas.
The film is based on Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story, a biography written by the band’s lead singer. In this sense, the movie’s title is a bit misleading as it has relatively little to do with The Runways and much more to do with Currie. Indeed, the opening scene is of a drop of blood hitting the pavement. The crimson liquid belongs to a young Currie who has ascended to menarche while standing on a street corner with her sister. We learn a bit about her less-than happy home life before being introduced to Joan Jett, a rebellious teenager who wants to rock. A chance meeting with the lascivious producer Kim Fowley leads to the formation of the band.
Fowley plays up the jailbait image of the band and this, plus the fact that the ladies had the chops, led to success. They toured, signed to a major label, and, generally speaking, lived the rock’n'roll cliché of drugs, booze, and so on. But after three years of touring and debauchery, Cherrie just couldn’t take anymore and left the band to deal with her demons.
Sigismondi, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, naturally strays from a strict account of true events, but all-too often, it detracts from the story rather than making it more comprehensible and interesting. She made the decision to make Currie’s friendship with Jett the focal point of her story. In the process, the rest of the band are legated to the background. We aren’t told that the band existed prior to Currie’s arrival (as well as after her departure). While this fact isn’t really necessary to telling the story, knowing a bit of the band dynamic beyond Currie-Jett would have made things less awkward. Towards the end of the film, Lita Ford lashes out at Currie in a recording studio. It’s a very tense scene but, until this point, Ford has been nothing but a cardboard cut-out so her anger basically comes out of the blue. It’s basically the first instance of anyone other than Currie, Jett, or Fowley driving the story and it is awkward.
The story is also distinctly cavalier when it comes to time. An intertitle at the beginning tells us it is 1975 and another prefaces the aftermath by noting that what follows is 8 months later. But the rest of the film is very disorienting and it feels like everything happened in a relatively short time span as opposed to over the course of three years. There’s nothing given to indicate when events happen in relation to one another excepting that Event B happened at some indiscernible time after Event A. Friendships evolve and mature over time but that of Currie and Jett felt like it happened over a summer. Their relationship rarely felt like it went anywhere and the film did precious little to show how it changed owing to previous events. Time is overly compressed in The Runaways and not delineated to allow the audience to make connections and see changes over the course of years.
My final criticism is really more of a disappointment. I felt frustrated that, for a movie about a rock band, music was given such short shrift. Other than a couple token scenes involving Jett, the role music played in the lives of the characters was ignored. Did it motivate them or was being in a band just a side job they did in between bouts of drug use?
Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart give great performances as Currie and Jett, respectively. Plus Michael Shannon chews some fantastic scenery in his over-the-top portrayal of Kim Fowley. But their performances are largely wasted by a film that gives a portrayal of Currie’s friendship with Jett that is both narrow and shallow. In addition, anything that isn’t about Currie seems to happen incidentally. Most of the band members are ignored as is music as a factor in their lives; and the impact an all-girl band had in the mid-1970s is basically glossed over. There’s little sense that the band existed at a certain time and place and that these contingencies would have much of anything to do with why they’re important enough to warrant a film.
The Runaways features some great acting, great music, and some alternately touching and funny scenes but, in the end, these elements aren’t able to keep the movie from feeling hollow.
Post Script: Director Floria Sigismondi was supposed to have been in attendance last night but was unable to be there. In her stead we were treated to Cherie Currie herself. She seemed genuinely pleased to be there, excepting the cold outside, and happily fielded questions from the audience. By the end, I got the impression that she had come to grips with her past and seemed quite at peace with herself. She and Joan Jett remain friends and she told us that some Runaways performances are not out of the question.
I posted a concert by The Runaways here.
Reviews by Madison luminaries listed above: