“This is a man’s world,” James Brown’s song lyrics, blare as the young Joan Jett runs from guitar lessons with a misogynistic teacher who laughingly dismisses her attempts to learn the electric guitar. The plot of “The Runaways” couldn’t be more self explanatory- it’s the story of the band “The Runaways” who are famous for tearing down the barriers of rock ‘n roll in the ’70s with their breakout all-girl band. including the legendary Joan Jett and lead singer Cherie Currie. They know how to rock and they’re not afraid to take some abuse to make it.
The infamous Joan Jett is played, with surprising believability, by the “Twilight” queen herself, Kristen Stewart. Starring in two movies at Sundance 2010, including this film and another where she plays a teenage stripper, Stewart is starting to show she can hold her own on-screen. Coached by Jett herself throughout the filming, Stewart gets the nuances and look of Jett down in such a way that it is a believable younger version of the rocker, complete with her semi-hunched shoulders, and jet-black shaggy hair. Cherie Currie is played with equal passion by the all-grown-up Dakota Fanning who appears on-screen with Stewart for a second time (Fanning also briefly stars in “Twilight: New Moon”). The rest of “The Runaways” are somewhat forgettable, as the film focuses in on Jett and Currie as the centerpieces of the band, and the story itself.
As a young teen, Jett’s passion develops to play music and start a band, and she eventually approaches legendary producer/songwriter/musician Kim Fowley. Fowley sees the potential in an all-girl band at that time, and he subsequently helps put together “The Runaways” and manages them. Fowley puts the girls through the ringer, doing everything from hardening their sound, to prepping their stage presence as he has garbage literally thrown at them in rehearsal. The scenes with Fowley are comical, and you see his ingenious insight into the potential of “The Runaways,” as he writes their hit song “Cherry Bomb” with virtual ease. Although Fowley is harsh with the group, this almost comes across as forgivable, after all, the music industry and lifestyle aren’t forgiving- especially to a group of teenage girls in the ’70s.
However, the true story of the group’s trials and tribulations with Fowley appear to be more serious with accusations of physical and sexual abuse through his time managing the group, and this is never delved into in the film.
It seems “The Runaways” is rock ‘n roll cliché ridden, but that is probably attributed to the amount of times these stories have been told on screen. The real difference is the clichés are true; it’s the ’70s and for a bunch of teen girls wrecking hotel rooms, being sexually experimental and open, and indulging in drugs was out-there in the heyday of rock and punk music. Writer/Director Floria Sigismondi carries out the scenes which depict the drugs, destruction and deviousness of the girls with more flavor, keeping true to the sequence of events which happened in their lives. Sigismondi has a background in music videos, and this is apparent with the glossy look of the film that captures the essence of the time period and what the effects of rock music were on that generation.
What seems lacking overall is the meat of the story; the history of who “The Runaways” toured and hung out with (Cheap Trick, Blondie, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, etc.) is omitted, and there surely were stories that could have been included in the film which would have steeped the film more historically and been interesting considering these bands were all significant in their own rite. Another element which was lacking, were the family life/backgrounds for the members of “The Runaways” which was not touched upon at all (with the exception of Currie). Without much of this setup and framework included, the film seems a little hollow at times when it could have had more punch.
It’s hard to tell if the teen generation now can put into perspective just how groundbreaking “The Runaways” were, paving the way for girl rock/pop groups in the ’80s all the way up until all girl pop punk/rock bands like “The Donnas.” In the days before punk rock and rock ‘n roll became politically-correct, vegetarian, non-controversial pop music, it was just a bunch of screwed up kids getting their frustrations out with raw and dirty music- a time when the band “The Runaways” did have a chance to “change the world,” by unleashing something it had never seen before. This film captures the time period when rock and punk were exploding on the world and changing the landscape of music, and is a small glimpse into the origins of one important band of the time.