Few rock songs of the 1970s have aged as terrifically as The Runaways’s explosive “Cherry Bomb.” A centerpiece for movie soundtracks aplenty (it’s memorably adorned scenes of Dazed and Confused and Guardians of the Galaxy) and an almost undoubtable pick amongst decade-defining “best-of” lists, it’s a slinky anthem of empowering defiance irresistible to most who come across it. With its ominous guitar struts and lip-smacking confidence found within its vocal delivery, it sounds like the work of rock veterans akin to Heart.
So pretend you aren’t aware that The Runaways were a rock ’n’ roll group comprised solely of teenage girls and it might once again seem as shocking as it might have when you first stumbled upon them. Because lead singer Cherie Currie sounded more like a hardened street tough in her thirties than she did the sixteen-year-old she was when the group’s first album was released. Because rock legend Joan Jett and ‘80s fad Lita Ford were a part of the band and were (and still are) not women one can picture as self-conscious adolescents. The authoritative, indelibly rebellious sounds of The Runaways are able to cause any given listener to forget that backstage hardship was as much a part of the equation as deadly tunes were.
Skim through Wikipedia and you’ll get a better idea of their rise and fall than you will with this 2010 biopic. But as The Runaways contains exceptional performances from Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart (as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, respectively), I’m hesitant to write it off as the theatrically released TV-movie-of-the-week that it is. It’s skin deep, uninterested in detail, and pretends that Currie was the only person in the group who went through shit during her time as a member. (This isn't a surprise — the film is based on her memoir).
The movie doesn’t have much to work with, anyway. Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, best known for projects in the music video industry, The Runaways is about as compelled to draw its characters as real people as Quentin Tarantino is in making a movie devoid of obscure cinematic references. It deals with the band’s darkest moments — including their drug abuses and their damaging relationship with erratic producer Kim Fowley (played brilliantly by Michael Shannon) — with the believability of an unauthorized biography. It knows the facts and portrays them to the best of their ability, but the results still ring with dreaded biopic phoniness that only renders everything as increasingly ersatz.
It begins in 1975, and reminds us that The Runaways’s success was almost a fluke. Jett, an aspiring guitarist at the time, met Fowley by chance at a bar one night, expressing interest in recording. He gave her his number and hooked her up with Sandy West (Stella Maeve), a drummer. Knowing of the girls’ talent but unsure of their appeal, he briefly looked for a lead singer to set things aflame until he randomly found Currie, who had the right jail bait appearance. He morphed them into the rock group that he wanted them to be. Within less than a year, they became rock stars (in Japan, at least), until Currie’s battle with alcohol and drugs destroyed any chances of longevity.
But the film is paint-by-the-numbers in its depiction of these events. It’s as humanistic, as revelatory, as a VH1 special with all the juiciest components squeezed out. It mostly has to do with how undeveloped most of its figures are. As it puts a spotlight on Currie, shines a naked bulb in the face of Jett, and keeps the rest of the band’s members in pits of anonymity until the occasion to deliver a line arises, there’s a definite bias and a definite feeling of romanticism. Nuances are hard to find; the film plays out as if it were checking off seminal events on a timeline rather than finding the emotional essences of them.
So the artificiality of it all is disappointing. With magnificent performances from Stewart, Fanning, and Shannon, it’s only incendiary when we’re distracted from the fact that everything, except the portrayals, is parched of authenticity. It has fascinating biographical knowledge to work with — it should be a true melodrama of staggering pomp. But The Runaways is only serviceable, never taking risks for a band that was nothing but risky. Sigismondi is a talented filmmaker. Shorter forms, though, are better suited for her. Where’s Todd Haynes when you need him? C