The Runaways wasn’t the big box office smash it should have been. It also wasn’t the faithfully detailed documentary many fans were hoping it would be. What it is, a coming of age story set against pre-punk, glam rock ’70s Los Angeles, is pretty spectacular, anyway.
Now, before any purists take me to task for that statement, consider that the film is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel. So, naturally, this is Cherie’s story, about Cherie’s experiences, from Cherie’s perspective. Joan Jett is also on board as an executive producer. The Runaways is not subjective (it’s based on the memories of a teenage girl) and it’s not definitive (certain band members became composites for legal reasons), but it’s not meant to be. Director and screenwriter Floria Sigismondi (best known for her work on music videos by Marilyn Manson, David Bowie and others) zooms in on the pivotal friendship between a 15-year-old Currie (Dakota Fanning) and a 16-year-old Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), and their entanglement with producer, impresario and outsized-personality Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon).
That both Fanning and Stewart immerse themselves so completely in these roles and relationships is what really makes this movie work, but it’s Shannon’s fearless interpretation of Fowley that makes it fun. He really steals the scenes he’s in, in true Fowley fashion (and if you think this portrayal is some sort of caricature or is somehow affected for the film’s dramatic purposes, go check out some interviews with him on You Tube. Fowley is his own dramatic purpose!).
The rest of the casting couldn’t be more perfect, so it’s a shame we never really get to see the other characters. Riley Keough is wonderful as Cherie’s sister, Marie, torn between wanting to be supportive and wanting to be noticed in her own right. Scout Taylor Compton, particularly, is great as Lita Ford, but because it’s Cherie’s story — and, in a way, Joan’s movie — neither she nor Stella Maeve, who plays Sandy West, get much of a chance to show their chops.
Sigismondi does a good job of imparting the energy of the times, of the music and of the girls as they go from unknowns at California house parties to superstars with screaming fans in Japan. She really excels at showing the internal motivations of Currie and Jett, as touring throws them together even as it tears them apart. There’s no shying away from the realities of life on the road, even though the protagonists are underage, but it’s not gratuitous in any way. It’s just a relatively honest look at girls growing up in the ’70s with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Of course, eventually the Runaways explode, just like the song, “Cherry Bomb”. Cherie walks out on a recording session, telling Joan that she just wants her life back, to which Jett replies, “This is my life.” As the movie ends, Currie cleans up her act and goes on to do some acting, and Joan Jett picks up her Gibson Melody Maker and goes on to do some more rocking. Sure, it’s a neat and tidy happy ending, but c’mon, even rock ‘n’ roll girls want those, sometimes, right?
The Runaways DVD special features include commentary with Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie is absent, for some reason). It’s interesting to hear Jett talk about inaccurate details, like the fact that she never wore leather pants, while praising the details that got the feeling of the era and the message of the music right. It’s also nice to hear Stewart and Fanning go shyly quiet sometimes when Jett compliments them. Other features are “Plugged In”, a behind-the-scenes interviews segment with cast, crew, music supervisor George Drakoulias and Currie, and the extended trailer.