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Entries in Runaways/The [2010] (1)

Saturday
Mar202010

The Runaways, 2010

Bland Practice

I went in to The Runaways not knowing anything about the late-70s all-girl rock band. An hour-and-forty-five minutes later, I left with the same amount of knowledge. This is generally not considered a good thing when it comes to biopics.

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi has an obvious affection for the era and the troubled girls of her film, but it’s the same googly-eyed love that a twelve-year-old girl might have for Justin Bieber. The movie fawns over the vintage cars, clothes and music, and gets positively obsessed with making actors Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Scout Taylor-Compton become their real-life counterparts Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, and Lita Ford; but rambling praise for fashion and good looks are the stuff of liner notes, not great screenplays.

To believe the screenplay by Sigismondi and Currie (who wrote the book “Neon Angel”, on which the story is based), a group of five teenage girls were brought together by a famous, sleazy record producer. They were chosen as much for their looks and hard-luck stories as for their musical abilities; this doesn’t matter, though, because after a handful of practices and two gigs, they landed a record deal. Lead Singer Currie (Fanning) developed a massive drug problem and addiction to bi-sexual fucking, which combined with her massive ego to destroy the band on their wildly successful Japanese tour. The Runaways are best remembered for having had the most prolific week in rock history, during which they put out five albums.

If that sounds ridiculous, you should probably avoid this movie. It is, honestly, the most jumbled, context-free mess of a biographical movie I’ve ever seen. What’s frustrating is that there are a handful of really good scenes here, but as a whole, The Runaways plays like a sitcom clips show: full of key moments, sure, but lacking the character and story connections that made those moments key. From the beginning, I felt like every other scene was missing; toward the end, I swear that number had risen to five or six.

The main problem may be the movie’s focus on Cherie Currie. The Runaways is a great coming-out party for Dakota Fanning, who proves that she’s more than just a precocious child star. Her vulnerability and budding sexuality come through with full force, and it’s thrilling and disturbing to think that she’s this much of a powerhouse at the age of sixteen. But she doesn’t have a character to play; she’s stuck as a schizophrenic amalgam of every after-school-special protagonist—succumbing to peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, exploitation by creepy old men. One minute she’s painting Ziggy Stardust makeup on her face, innocently paying homage to her idol/crush David Bowie; the next she’s having sex up against a sink in a dressing room toilet with her road manager. By the time she has her coked-out diva blow-up with Lita Ford in Japan, we’ve officially given up on the lost-innocence angle and written Currie off as an imbalanced psychopath. The Runaways does everything it can to prove this assessment correct.

I have to give props to Kristen Stewart, who is gives the film’s best performance (depending on what you think of her as an actress, this should also be very telling). Her Joan Jett becomes convincing over the course of the movie, but she doesn’t hit her stride until it’s almost over. The early scenes—particularly when she sings—are downright embarrassing to watch. When she struts out of a store sporting her first leather jacket, I didn’t see a tough chick asserting her rebel power, I saw Pee-Wee Herman in Big Adventure, trying to act like a badass in the presence of Mickey the convict. This problem, I think, goes back to the fact that Currie is the center of the story (the equivalent of writing an Aerosmith movie in which the main character is Joey Kramer). We get glimpses of Jett, huffing chemicals or teaming up with producer Kim Fowler (Michael Shannon) to recruit Currie, but until the end of the film, we don’t see JOAN JETT, iconic, no-nonsense rock goddess. In these couple of scenes, Stewart sheds the tics and tropes that barely carry her through Twilight and brings energy to the screen in a way that, frankly, surprised me.

I would like to comment briefly on Michael Shannon’s performance. I don’t know anything about the real Kim Fowler—because, again, The Runaways wasn’t interested in helping me out—but the actor plays him as a cross between Andy Warhol and Heath Ledger’s Joker with ‘roid rage. I don’t get it: he’s a “famous” producer who has no money and the personality of a Rottweiler. At the same time, he’s got connections with record labels (except when he doesn’t) and is charismatic enough that Cherie Currie’s mother allows her—at fifteen years old—to go on a tour he’s put together with a car-load of misfit teens. I didn’t buy any of it, and Shannon’s twitchy, angry boss thing wore old really quickly, especially in the scenes where his abusive behavior was supposed to be funny/inspiring.

For as much of a failure as The Runaways is, I have to give it credit for doing part of its job correctly. When I got home from the theatre, I downloaded their greatest hits, along with that of Jett’s later band, The Blackhearts. The music is scrappy and cohesive, and it’s easy to understand the musicians’ enduring appeal. The movie is crappy and incoherent, and I can’t see anyone remembering it past, say, June.