Here’s a challenge: Make a list of successful all-female rock bands, starting with The Runaways, the short-lived teen group from the 1970s.
After the Go-Go’s, the Bangles and The Donnas, your list will probably be nearing its end.
That may explain the enduring legacy of the band, whose brief but explosive career is dramatized in “The Runaways,” which opens Friday and stars Kristen Stewart as guitarist Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as singer Cherie Currie. Though dressed in authentic period regalia — teardrop sunglasses, platform shoes, shag haircuts — the all-girl band might look just as shocking, and certainly as unique, if it formed today.
Based on Currie’s book “Neon Angel: The Memoir of a Runaway” (due in stores Tuesday), the film tells a familiar tale of rock music, drugs and recovery. The gender of the players, however, adds new layers to the story, and the intimate relationship between Currie and Jett may surprise some viewers. The bond between the two women — partly sexual but mostly protective and supportive — is unusual to see in any movie.
In some ways, that friendship is responsible for the movie’s existence. In 2005, Jett’s longtime manager, Kenny Laguna, began helping Currie find a publisher. Her memoir was not a typical tell-all; it had previously been released as a young-adult book with a strong anti-drug message. The new version, however, includes more grown-up stories from her chaotic stint with The Runaways and beyond.
Now a divorced, 50-year-old mother living in Los Angeles (she is also, improbably, a chain-saw artist), Currie met with Fanning a few weeks before filming began last summer. “I think she loved that time in her life and maybe wished it had turned out differently, but it couldn’t,” Fanning said. “She was on a downward spiral and she made the choice to stop it.”
When Currie’s book began to draw interest from movie producers, Jett, for one, was reluctant to participate. “I was never interested in having a Runaways movie made because I thought they could only screw it up,” said Jett, 51, a native Pennsylvanian who now lives in Long Beach, Calif. But when River Road Entertainment expressed interest, Jett — who had been impressed by the company’s production of “Brokeback Mountain” — agreed to sign on. She and Laguna are credited as executive producers.
Though famous for girl-power anthems like “Cherry Bomb,” “Queens of Noise” and “Born to Be Bad,” the Runaways were essentially created and controlled by Kim Fowley, a producer-songwriter played in the film by Michael Shannon. A flamboyant personality whose eclectic resume would eventually range from KISS to Helen Reddy, Fowley had a vision for a new kind of girl group. As he explained in a recent interview, he had noticed two parallel trends in the early 1970s: women’s liberation and male androgyny.
“The feminization of American males,” Fowley said, “began the day feminism started.”
The Runaways would eventually include lead guitarist Lita Ford, who would grow up to become heavy metal’s reigning queen during the 1980s; bassist Jackie Fox, who went on to study law at Harvard; and drummer Sandy West, who died in 2006. (One early member was bassist Micki Steele, later known as Michael Steele in the Bangles.)
The sound was hard-charging, the attitude rebellious and the T-shirts tight (the band’s very name offered a hint of sleaze). Raucous shows at clubs and house parties led to a deal with Mercury Records and a self-titled debut disc in 1976. For all their success, however, The Runaways found themselves jeered as much as hyped by a male-dominated music press.
“It was a little derogatory, but they were excited about them, too,” said writer-director Floria Sigismondi, a rock-video veteran making her feature debut with “The Runaways.” Judging by the media coverage, she said, “audiences were a little bit confused when they saw The Runaways for the first time: ‘They’re sexy, but they’re all girls! Should they be doing that? My God, they’re 15! Can they actually play?’”
Their own manager didn’t treat them much better. In the film, Fowley is depicted as a sneering tyrant who refers to the girls as “dogs” and hires hecklers to pelt them with objects during rehearsal. Still, both Jett and Currie remember him with a certain bemused fondness.
As for Fowley, he remains unrepentant: “Abuse? Shut up and play.”
No wonder some of the girls turned to each other for emotional support. The film depicts Jett and Currie almost as a couple, making out passionately (to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and apparently ending up in bed.
In separate interviews, both women used the word “experimentation” to describe their relationship, but they emphasize friendship over romance.
“We were best friends, and back then, in the ‘70s, that was just kind of what you did,” Currie said in a phone interview. “We weren’t in love with each other; we loved each other.”
Jett, who has always closely guarded her private life, was slightly more circumspect: “If something happened one night, that’s all it was and nothing beyond that.”
Although Jett remains the most famous face to emerge from The Runaways, the film focuses mainly on Currie and her journey from high-school troublemaker to rock icon to something approaching normality. Currie said she particularly loves the film’s bittersweet but hopeful scene.
“The point was, you can survive anything,” Currie said. “And I did.”
// Notes from the Road
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