The Runaways were a sports team with musical instruments and teenage lyrics.
— Kim Fowley, Edgeplay
As The Runaways begins, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is shopping. Specifically, she’s going through the men’s racks at a punky/vintage shop in Southern California. Disdained by the clerk (“Are you just gonna hang around or are you gonna buy something this time?”), Jett pauses, assesses a young man in black pencil jeans and black leather jacket, then asserts, “I want what he’s wearing.”
And yes, a style is born. Like the contrivance of Audrey Tatou deciding on Chanel’s little black dress, this scene quotes history-as-mythology, a gesture more than an insight or even a reenactment. It’s a strategy this film uses repeatedly, as if to say, you either know how true this is or you don’t, but it doesn’t much matter. The art is so wrapped up with the commerce (in this movie, in rock, in your over-consuming existence) that all you need to see is Joan Jett striding down the sidewalk in her signature jacket — authentic self-expression or ballsy artifice — to get the gist of The Runaways. Much like rock, its critique of a system is embedded in that system.
Depending on whether you’re invested in history (which remains elusive here) or quotation (which is rampant), the film’s Escher drawing-ness is either intriguing or vacuous. Joan is, of course, smart, confident, and self-creating (she was born Joan Larkin). But her incarnation by Stewart seems a little too cool for this movie — at least until you remember that the real Jett executive-produced this fictional and rather conventional version of the band’s life.
In the early ’70s, Joan is a kid looking for a way to express herself: it’s just lucky for the planet that she lands on wearing boys’ clothes and playing electric guitar. (This last makes for another iconic quotation: when Joan goes for guitar lessons, her male teacher tells her girls can’t plug in, and proceeds to teach her “On Top of Old Smoky.” “Are you kidding me?” she asks, before stomping out in her big boots, through a school parking lot and right into a montage sequence under “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — a brief reminder for those of you who are not paying attention.)
Like all the boys who get to be rock stars, Joan’s rage is partly hormonal and partly discerning and righteous. She and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) start a band, introduced to one another by grody manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, whose cretinous antics and popping eyes don’t quite get at how abusive and predatory the guy was). He suggests they prowl clubs to fill out the group, lighting on Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), her blond feathered hair, big eyes, and 15-year-old slenderness combining for the perfect look he wants in a singer: “Jail Fucking Bait.” And oh yes, maybe she can sing, or at least be taught how to belt out the crude come-ons he conjures as lyrics.
The movie’s focus on Currie is premised on its source, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story. This distracts from the story of Joan and the band, reframing it as a sweet young thing’s corruption by rock (sex, drugs, and a trip to that very other place, Japan). Cherie serves as your guide into this raucous other-world, the distaff version of Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous — surprised, sullied, and eventually educated. The focus on Cherie distracts from Joan and the band (which includes guitarist Lita Ford [Scout Taylor-Compton] and composite bassist “Robin” [Alia Shawkat]). She’s the only girl with a visible home life, that is, a dysfunctional constellation comprised of a twin sister, Marie (Riley Keough), as well as a toxic mom (Tatum O’Neal) and a perpetually passed out dad (Brett Cullen). Seeking solace in rock, Cherie decides to lip-sync Bowie lyrics and paint her face like the Aladdin Sane cover art — a performance that inspires her classmates at the high school talent show to boo and throw paper wads at her. She gathers herself and flips them all off with both hands, eliciting cheers at last. Now she knows: her peers are indeed easily manipulated neanderthals and, most importantly, girls can get attention by misbehaving.
And getting attention is precisely the goal Kim sets. An all-girl band, he insists, must play like boys (hard and fast, and, because it’s Joan Jett, pretty well), but also endure endless sexist, fearful taunts. He trains them to withstand assaults — not just of paper wads, but also beer cans, garbage and, dog shit. They keep on, and they put Cherie out in fishnets and corsets, imagining that if they can only be seen and heard, they will, in a next step, impress the rock world with their talents.
Except that this rock world is as misogynist, constrained, and exploitative as the one they’re hoping to leave behind in the burbs, only more so. Driving a station wagon from gig to gig, assisted by a less than professional roadie (Johnny Lewis), the girls do make splashes, and Floria Sigismondi’s movie is right to point out how groundbreaking they were. But repeated on-the-road montages and a couple of drunken-bonding scenes set at the Hollywood sign are short on details, reducing the Runaways’ complicated and remarkable story to a familiar coming-of-age movie — albeit one with some much-ballyhooed and actually flimsy Fanning-Stewart sex scene, reduced to a set of soft-filtered, hallucinatory close-ups. Girls, you know, they’re so emotional, so ethereal, and so unserious.
Just so, the movie is less interested in the extraordinary work of the Runaways (the industry breakthrough, the music, the exploitation of their exploitation) than in the ordinary narrative trappings. These are mostly reduced to images of Cherie’s miserable adolescence, a strategy that leaves Joan’s myth pretty much untouched. When the band breaks up (less brutally than in real life, apparently), she keeps on rocking while Cherie wears beige and works in a bridal shop. A sort of climax is offered when Joan writes “I Love Rock and Roll,” the camera angled up through a narrow doorway while she literally bounces with guitar on her bed. The scene quotes history yet again. And again, it doesn’t much matter whether you believe it.