Director: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 109 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
You can accuse The Runaways of many things but subtlety shouldn't be among them. Not when its opening image is of menstrual blood dripping to the ground. It doesn't pull punches in its depiction of the first major all-girl rock band or shy away from casting controversially to provoke a reaction. But it does condense, occasionally going through the obligatory beats of a standard by-the-numbers rock bio when the project could have used more ambition. But in its favor, the music is great, many sequences are well directed and there's a surprisingly sensational performance marking the maturation of a major actress who proves herself more talented than anyone could have suspected.
While the film somewhat solidifies typical misgivings about biopics and highlights the problems faced when bringing a really compelling true life story to the screen. Watching, you wouldn't have a clue that The Runaways had members other than Cherie Curie and Joan Jett or were incredibly talented musicians. Listening to the music, you would. Despite focusing on my preferred genre of music and being set in probably my favorite time period, I still can't shake the nagging feeling that we're being given the cliff notes version of a larger story and that the band deserved more. But that's not to say it still doesn't have its thrills.
Picking up in 1975, eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) seemingly by chance assembles the band on the fly, seeing dollar signs and jailbait in pairing aspiring musician Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) with the 15-year-old Cherie Currie, who has no singing experience outside of lip-syncing David Bowie at her school talent show (in one of the film's best scenes). They're joined by drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton) and Robin (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat), a fictionalized version of their real-life bassist, Jackie Fox. The film wisely centers around Currie and Jett, with a primary emphasis on Currie's Behind The Music-like descent into the drug addiction that eventually broke up the band and ended her career. She's gone on to work a chain saw artist and write Neon Angel: Memoir of a Runaway, the autobiography on which this film is based, while Jett and Ford survived the implosion, using it as a stepping stone to hugely successful music careers of their own.
It was unquestionably the right call focusing on the two big names, but had I not listed the other band members it would be impossible to tell from the film that they existed at all, especially Shawkat's "Robin" who I don't remember even appearing, much less having a single line of dialogue. Aside from one angry outburst (in a scene that recalls the t-shirt argument in Almost Famous, but with a magazine), Ford is invisible as well. That's less excusable considering Lita Ford is hardly a minor figure in music and you have the benefit of an actress as good as Taylor-Compton playing her. Only Maeve's Sandy gets what could be considered minimal screen time at best, but still no defining role or personality. In a way, the big meltdown scene plays ironically since this film is just as guilty of ignoring the rest of the band as the media and the public was. If it disappoints as biopic or a look into the disintegration of a band, that's made up for with its success as a coming-of-age story.
I kept waiting for the scope of the film to catch up with the power and intensity of Fanning's performance but that just wasn't meant to be, and in retrospect, would almost be impossible. Not only considering physical resemblances, on paper you couldn't make two better casting choices for Currie and Jett than Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, but it's Fanning who delivers, carrying the entire film. Supposedly years before she was even old enough for the role, Fanning was always Currie's top choice to play her and now really clear why. Anyone who watched her as a child star is in for a shock as she turns a rock cliche into a devastating performance of brutal honesty and pathetic desperation. Besides transforming from a timid, waif unable to sing a note in key into an enigmatic powerhouse commanding the stage in a corset, she makes Cherie's fall off the deep believable by not completely losing touch with the innocent little girl we're familiar with her playing. Even by the end of the film you still see her, but through a sad, empty shell.
Less successful is Stewart as Jett, as I never really got past the fact that this just felt like Stewart being Stewart, but with a mullet, attempting an impersonation rather than embodying the persona. Onstage she conveys Jett's swagger as a performer but in the scenes off of it she often falls back on certain annoying "Stewartisms" like mumbling and hanging her head. At points she even looks physically uncomfortable in the part, particularly a later scene where she comes off as an 80's Jett impersonator at a costume party. It's a disappointment since I was looking forward to her potentially re-proving herself as the talented dramatic actress we saw in Into The Wild and Adventureland after selling her soul for Twilight paychecks. This effort won't do it, but in her defense she had the pressure of tackling one of the most famous rock figures of all-time in Jett whereas Fanning could more easily benefit from creating the perception she's building a character from the ground up with the lesser known Currie. Compounding Stewart's problem is that she's starring in a movie about celebrity while currently being overexposed as one herself. It's possible her performance just needs time to be looked on more favorably, but Fanning is so impressively poised in the more pivotal role she's able to easily cover for her. As the only main male figure in the cast, Michael Shannon adds maniacal Kim Fowley to his repertoire of scary creeps and after seeing photos of the real person it's amazing just how much he physically resembles him. Sure, he's a cartoon, but weren't all record producers larger-than-life cartoons back then? I wouldn't argue with anyone more interested in seeing a spin-off biopic focused on his character.
First time writer/director Floria Sigismondi has a history in music videos which should have made her the ideal candidate to direct this, and in a way, she is. The band as a unit is ignored but their music isn't. Sigmundi's sense for time and place stands out with the set design and costumes, as well as distorted visuals and a color palette that gets progressively grimier and darker as the story progresses to its conclusion. The concert scenes are the among strongest and both Stewart and Fanning do a better than passable job recreating the vocals, which is no easy task. These sequences and the soundtrack would make those unfamiliar with The Runaways' music check them out, which should always be the primary goal in a movie that's supposed to be all about the music. That the film can even be mentioned favorably in relation to something like Almost Famous (which take place during the same period and covers similar musical territory) is a victory in itself. The one complaint always leveled against that picture was that it took an R-rated subject matter and made it PG-13. That approach wouldn't fly here. This is what these girls did, this was how old they were and there's no getting around the dirty details. Sigmundi doesn't gloss over them, giving us the uncomfortable feeling we're witnessing something we shouldn't without crossing the line into needless exploitation.
This is a really close call for me as the film seems better now than when I was actually watching it, which could just speak for my enthusiasm for the subject and desire to see more than just a slice of what should have been an epic rock bio. Though it's Fanning's performance pushing the material over the top, the riskiest decision made is presenting the band just as lucky as they were good. There was a little of both for sure, but it's mostly the former that shines through here, making The Runaways work better as a cautionary coming-of-age tale than a biographical account. And more proof that sometimes it pays just being at the right place at the right time.