[9 April 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So who, exactly were The Runaways? What story are we to believe - the fact-based Joan Jett-less version forwarded by the otherwise intriguing documentary Edgeplay, or the fascinating if flawed biopic from Italian director Floria Sigismondi. The former is like the equally excellent look at the short-lived career of punk icons The Sex Pistols (The Filth and the Fury), minus the participation of someone like John Lydon, while the latter plays like a clean-up version of every rock bands rise to fame. Maybe somewhere in between lies the actual story, a complicated tale of teenage dreams and individual exploitation. And circling it all like a gigantic industry sleazebag is producer turned proto-pedophile Kim Fowley.
Both films follow the same basic narrative path. A group of lost girls in mid-Me Decade LA hook up with a seasoned media huckster long past his prime, put together a hormonally charged music act, and struggle to be taken seriously. Without Jett’s input in Edgeplay (she refused to participate and even disallowed the use of any song she co-wrote or sang), the tale becomes one of Fowley’s Fagan and the rest of the band’s pseudo slutbag street urchins. Oddly enough, the whole Malcolm McLaren/individual manipulation angle is everpresent and quite shocking in its upfront nature.
In Sigimondi’s fictional film (based on Currie’s recent memoirs), we learn of Jett’s desire to distance herself from her horrible life and start a band. As played by Twilight talent Kristen Stewart, she’s a series of planned poses and power chords just waiting for a stage to dominate. Fowley (brilliantly realized by an amazing Michael Shannon) comes along, all cockiness - both figuratively and literally - and slaps a bunch of equally underage babes into a possible product. The missing piece (get it?) - Cherie Currie, a blonde bombshell who can sell sex to all the boys. As essayed by Dakota Fanning, we get the requisite naiveté followed by the full grrrl power pout.
Unlike Edgeplay, which allows other members of the group to proffer their perspective, The Runaways dismisses Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox (drummer Sandy West, played by Stella Maeve, has a minimal say), the latter turned into “an amalgamation” of various rotating members to amplify the insult. Instead, the focus is on Jett and Currie, their burgeoning quasi-lesbian fascination with each other, and their struggles to stay focused inside a brutal, male dominated realm. Sigimondi is very good at building the bond between these two, taking time to show them as pained adolescents working through their issues within a world of grown-ups.
Edgeplay, on the other hand, is a ballsy bitch fest. It’s all about missed opportunities and bad management. Ford, especially, repeats her anti-Fowley mantra, maintaining that the band would have been bigger had their incompetent ‘keeper’ not thought himself a member of the ‘group’ as well. Even though he is present to speak for himself, and does so quite eloquently and openly, Fowley remains an enigma, elusive in his motives and quirky to a restraining order fault. He’s the kind of man for whom the phrase “act your age” holds absolutely no meaning, who is listed in the end credits of the current biopic as ‘still wandering around the Sunset Strip with a cane…and green hair.’ Typical.
Yet aside from being overtly flamboyant and full of himself, Fowley can’t explain the ruse reasoning behind The Runaways. There’s talk about empowerment and women’s lib, as well as the raging hard-ons of teen boys, but musically the group appears tethered to a kind of glam rock revisionism that few were buying in the dinosaur dominion of ‘70s radio. Besides, the songs aren’t always that memorable, few having the actual staying power of the signature tune “Cherry Bomb.” It’s also important to remember that The Runaways may have been big around the world, but they were very late bloomers (if at all) on their home turf. It took years before anyone thought of them as something other than a footnote in Jett’s superstar rise to “I Love Rock and Roll” prominence.
But perhaps the biggest issue overlooked by the new film is, as the fictional Fowley himself puts it, the concept of “jail-f-ing-bait”. Sure, it was the ‘70s, so lusting after girls who could barely babysit wasn’t so out of bonds, right Mr. Music Biz Whiz? No need to address the notion of age limits or issues of consent. In Edgeplay, lead singer Cherie Currie makes it very clear that something “unhealthy” happened between herself and the group’s manager/mentor. Without going into detail, and letting Fowley’s freakish flimflam manner do most of the talking, the inference is one of assault, battery, and lingering aftereffects. The biopic doesn’t even mention the incident, perhaps out of a need to keep the kiddies engaged in the otherwise standard issue rags to riches saga.
Still, you’d think that a movie which touches on same sex yearnings, drunken dads, prima donna former actress mothers, drug abuse, sibling rivalry, T&A, and Rodney Bingenheimer should be brave enough to address such an obvious element. Yet The Runaways often skirts depth or dimension in favor of flare and formulaic rock and roll realities. As a filmmaker, Sigismondi does her best to breathe life into the era, taking period piece facets and making them mean more than they originally did (especially the hairdos). But then she fails to fully realize what’s really interesting about the band - the fact that five girls could more or less hold their own in an arena where few, if any, had succeeded before.
There should have been more playing, more rehearsal footage and time spent in the insular world of the band. Instead, The Runaways gives Stewart and Fanning room to run, and then hopes Shannon’s Fowley will keep the guys in check. The results are often exhilarating and frequently uneven. Just when we think Sigismondi will build up a big head of steam, she settles back into introspective mode and the movie retreats with her. At least Edgeplay had the nuance of a narrative constantly evolving, interview after interview building layers and filling in the blanks for a far more fascinating portrait. While fiction might be more visually compelling, the truth resonates with much more emotion and soul.
Still, The Runaways remains an above-average attempt to illustrate the limited ups and bottomless downs of life in service to the business of show. The acting is excellent and the first hour shimmers with some unsuspected surprises. While it appears impossible to make a movie about real people and not have it suffer from genre stereotyping, director Sigismondi tries and her efforts are worth noting. Still, something like Edgeplay reminds us that nothing hits home harder than the real deal. Even with one major missing participant, hearing the skewed truth from the horse’s mouth is a lot better than having someone revamp and visualize it for us. During their heyday, the band was often called the Queens of Noise. Now, nearly four decades later, that din you hear isn’t music - it’s the sound of people getting their story straight.