"It's not about women's lib, it's about women's libido," bellows a blistering Michael Shannon (as eccentric music producer Kim Fowley) in The Runaways. The film, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, tells the typical rise and fall story of the titular band, a trailblazor for rock girls. Set in 1975, where a group of proto-rock\punk girls including Joan Jett and Cherie Curie got their starts. As produced and manufactored by Fowley, the film understands that the success of "The Runaways" really never had anything to do with the music, it was the sale of sex, notably jailbait sex. Of course this is also the film being keenly marketed as the movie where Twilight co-stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning make out. Some things never change. However, there is an interesting anecdotal resonance with the story of "The Runaways," not just in the all-female rock star way, or even necessarily in the minors behaving sexually explicit way; in that the band, much like The Sex Pistols shortly before lived in that in-flux of music movements that tapped in to a sort of anarchic spirit. The move from rock (or even glam rock) into punk. The great irony is that both bands were developed and conceived and trained by alledgedly unethical ways by warped managers.
Happily, there are moments in The Runaways that make you forget the novelty of the Stewart and Fanning-ish, were the period feels geniune. The band proclaims early on, that they play slow songs, and the first hour or so, loudly rejoices in that. The defiant sexual lyrics of "Cherry Bomb," the bands biggest song, literally made up on the spot, as the film surposes-- all tease and mass sex appeal. The song still feels vulgar even in a decade post-Britany Spears. The seemingly unnatural sight of Dakota Fanning purring the ch-ch-ch actually feels right. These are young girls, probably more innocent than they pretend to be, twitching and posing, which it seems is what the band did. As time goes on, and they go on the road (even to Japan, where "The Runaways" were far more successful), and the cliches of band movies come in full throttle. Drugs, sex, in-fights, etc. It's all here sorted carefully, and yet the film is still a fairly lively, and utterly watchable affair. And of course, we do indeed get to see Stewart and Fanning make out, yet for the teasing and preening, the film version never comes across shocking.
Part of that reason has to be the performances. Stewart and Fanning admirably go the alternative route, but it never feels like either of them truly transcends it. Fleeting moments work, like when Stewart's Joan Jett pees on a guys guitar just for the hell of it, or when Fanning's Cherie Curie lipsynchs to David Bowie at a school talent contest, but for large stretches it feels like safe make believe. Especially in the final act of The Runaways where the music slows down-- the adrenaline rush breaks and the film feels the need to aim higher. We've seen collectively in movies so many times before the decline of a band, or anything of some kind of prominence, that it probably needs a far more deft, and subtle crew than this one to come down here. A bigger problem for the film is that the relationship between these gals isn't really developed to give a strong emotional response. We meet Joan first buying a men's leather jacket to sharp criticism, and I suppose we just assume here's our rebel, and that's about it. She's also got a thing for the ladies, but that's not really enough of an accord to Cherie.
On the front of Kristen Stewart, a lightening rod of an actress, that sparks vehement debate-- the question wages on. She has the look for sure to pull this off, but that eternal Twilight glare still seems to haunt her acting. She has a sort of twitchy, almost interesting internal performance going on here for most of the film, but we really all to see Joan Jett scream, and hold forth that sort of dominance. Stewart, to her credit, pulls it off a few times, and that's sort of my frustration with her-- I think I see a shred, or possibly a real gift in her, but it never seems to completely satisfy.
The real power, and what I wished was the focal point was Fowley. As played by the incredible Michael Shannon, he brings that anarachistic transitional phase in music to blistering life. He may well be deplorable, and certainly exploitative, but he understood far more than anyone else the appeal of "The Runaways" in late 70s America, or Japan. Have them scream and be loud, wear skimmpy clothes, and do exactly what he tells them to do. B-