In the new 1970s-set rock biopic “The Runaways,” Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning tap into major reservoirs of their own angst from being thrust into the spotlight at an early age.
And it’s eerily effective.
Respectively, as 16-year old leather-clad guitarist Joan Jett and 15-year old Bowie-obsessed lead singer Cherie Curie, they project just the right mix of confidence and insecurity to anchor a film that has more on its mind than depicting the standard rise-and-fall story.
It’s perfect that the sight of Fanning (who is best known for her roles as a child actor) strutting around in tight satin pants and generally acting the part of a teenage sex kitten makes the audience a little uncomfortable—because that’s the essence of what makes the story of The Runaways so compelling.
Although it was dedicated and serious rock n’ roller Jett who wanted to form an L.A.-based all-girl hard-rock band, it was record producer Kim Fowley (played with appropriate and voracious abandon by Michael Shannon) who put all the pieces together and gave the girls their start. Here he is portrayed as mentor, ringleader, puppetmaster, rip-off artist, and sleazy opportunist.
“The Runaways” is constantly walking the fine line between asserting girl power (as the band butts up against macho sexism in the rock n’ roll world) and depicting the blatant exploitation of the group (who are referred to in ads as “braless” and “jailbait”). What is really interesting is how the movie depicts the band members as victims and heroes at the same time.
How much were the girls aware of their image and how much did they play into it? Better yet, how did they justify it to themselves at the end of the day? Because the movie eludes easy answers to these questions, it succeeds on a deeper level than it probably should.
Writer/director Floria Sigismondi also deftly juggles the story of Cherie’s unique coming-of-age and her complicated family life. The relationship between Cherie and her sister (Riley Keough), is handled with startling frankness and provides an unlikely emotional backbone to the movie.
Sigismondi—famous for her visually stunning music video work—excels not only in capturing the look and feel of the mid-70s, but has a real knack for capturing the intoxicating experience of raw live performance, both from an audience standpoint and especially the performer’s POV. The scenes of The Runaways playing live (with vocals by Fanning) are some of the most charged in the film.
The screenplay, based on Curie’s memoir “Neon Angel,” also delves a bit into the sometimes sexual friendship of Joan and Cherie, born out of respect and codependence, as they both find their way amidst the confusing backdrop of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
Essentially, “The Runaways” is about growing up, but even when it must travel down familiar paths, it presents the girls’ story as more than a mere cautionary tale.
The film is remarkably devoid of preachiness, giving its characters the room they need to breathe. Although the trappings may seem familiar from other musician biopics (“Walk the Line,” “Ray”), the material is handled with an admirable amount of ambiguity and is all the better for it.