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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Runaways (review)

Music to My Ears

Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Angst and anger and alienation. Rags to riches to heartbreak. We’ve seen this all before… and we haven’t, either. Not like this. There hasn’t been a movie like The Runaways, one about women rockers that’s just as raw and earthy and tough and pitiless as the ones about the men are. Josie and the Pussycats and Spice World this ain’t.
Of course, the music today ain’t like it was in the 1970s, either: the sex and the rebellion has been sapped from it, and that could have been how The Runaways went down, too: defanged and niced-up. But writer-director Floria Sigismondi — a music video auteur making her feature debut — refuses to let that happen. Working from Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], by one of her subjects, Cherie Currie, she’s crafted a movie that surges with unchecked fury, that’s feminist in the best uncompromising way in how it eschews ladylike requests for equality with demands that cannot be ignored, that truly captures the “rock ’n’ roll as a bloodsport” ethos that one of its characters espouses.

And she’s made a movie about unruly female rage, something we rarely get to see on film unless a woman has lost a child or a romance. Joan Larkin — or Joan Jett, as she’s already calling herself as a high school rebel — and Cherie Currie aren’t angry for any particular reason, or at least for no reason other than the ones that boys are allowed to be angry about: They’re teenagers. The world sucks. Their families are messed up. And no one wants to let them be what they want to be. Jett has no choice but to storm out of a school lesson after the (male) music teacher coldly informs her that “girls don’t play electric guitars.” Currie gets spitwads lobbed at her at a school talent show when her glammed-up impersonation of David Bowie bewilders her fellow students.

And then Jett meets promoter Kim Fowley, who quickly overcomes his skepticism about girl guitar players when she demonstrates she can totally kick some rock ass, and he hooks her up with Currie, and the Runaways are born. Some fans of the band are upset that the film glosses over members other than Jett and Currie, but — despite the title — the film isn’t about the band so much as it’s about how two different women react to sudden fortune in different ways, how their friendship ebbs and flows in reaction to their getting tossed into the gladitorial arena of worldwide fame. (The “big in Japan” sequence is a sly embracing of the clichés of these kinds of movies while at the same time confounding them.) Kristen Stewart (New Moon, Adventureland), as Jett, and Dakota Fanning (Coraline, Push), as Currie, turn in performances that are revelatory: the promise that they both showed as child actors (and which, in Stewart’s case, has not been well served by the Twilight phenomenon) crosses over here to genuine adult talent. My only fear for them: They’ll be frustrated in years to come when they realize that very few films are going to offer them the opportunity to express themselves like they can here, as women who are as fully human and as fully fucked up as men are more typically allowed to be onscreen.

“This isn’t about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido,” Fowley screams in one of the many wonderfully frenzied moments Michael Shannon (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Lucky You) imbues him with: he’s excited about the possibility of these chicks, and while he is ever obnoxious in how he pushes them — like when he makes the band practice dealing with heckers by hiring guys to come throw crushed beer cans and feces at them during a rehearsal — he’s never wrong. If he’s attempting to exploit them, Jett and Currie never acede and let themselves be exploited (or at least not any further than is beneficial to them). Perhaps the most truly amazing thing about The Runaways is how Sigismondi keeps all sense of the exploitive out of the film. Teenaged girls getting shit thrown at them by teenaged boys could have been deeply creepy… and so could have, say, the underaged Fanning parading around in fuck-me lingerie, or Fowley’s glee at the prospect of Currie’s appeal to music fans: “Jail-fucking-bait!” he cries. “Jack-fucking-pot!” That The Runaways manages to be about sex without being self-consciously titillating and about rage without being overputtingly bitter itself is a cinematic miracle.

Watch The Runaways online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

MPAA: rated R for language, drug use and sexual content - all involving teens

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Magess

    Interesting. Filmspotting had a completely different take on the movie. And both the critics there are men. I wonder if that makes an essential difference in this case. Because they both thought that the movie wasn’t very strongly about anything. That it didn’t really know what it wanted to say. I’d love to see a debate between you just to see how it went down. ;)

  • David

    First of all, I gotta admit that Joan Jett is completely awesome. There can absolutely be no argument on that point. However, my initial enthusiasm for this film went way down when I learned of the near exclusion in the film of Lita Ford and Jackie Fox. It’s The Runaways, not the Joan and Cherie Band. This is supposedly a bio-film. Concentrating mainly on two-fifths of the band does not do justice to The Runaways as a whole entity.

  • Mo

    It’s interesting to me that Joan Jett’s “I love Rock and Roll” was apparently the Billboard #1 single the day I was born. Nearly 30 years later and girls still aren’t really allowed to be in a traditional rock band, in fact it’s far worse now in the mainstream than it was ten years ago. At least Grunge and 80’s New Wave had a fair number of women who were accepted- even as the main guitarists. But I haven’t heard of a modern one in a long time, except for Charlotte Hatherly, who went solo in the end. It’s like the idea is still that girls go solo while guys form bands. And if you’re going to play a guitar in your solo act, it better be acoustic. (Indie is another story, but it’s usually in the giant groups like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene where individual contributions don’t matter as much and the girls usually end up playing violin not guitar.)

    But I guess it goes both ways- I was the only girl in my guitar class at school because none of the other girls were interested that year, and I never learned to play with other people because the guys just ignored me so I never improved.

    And both the critics there are men. I wonder if that makes an essential difference in this case.

    I think it does. Based on the last time I checked rotten tomatoes, most of the male critics were whining that oh no it’s another rock and roll cliche movie but this time- even worse- it’s about girls not legends. It was mainly the women who seemed to grasp why the movie was important.

    I can’t help wondering how many of the men who are against it were the kids who dismissed the band back in the 70’s though…

  • Dave

    I couldn’t agree more with you David. One of my pet peeves is films that claim to be “true stories” but actually have very little to do with what really happened. The exclusions make it alot less of a must see movie in my eyes because when something that big is left out how can you really trust that it’s just not a work of fiction with real names glued onto the characters to sell more tickets

  • LaSargenta

    David and Dave, While I can understand you being disappointed that the movie is concentrating on only two of the musicians, I can’t think of a single band biopic that really covered everyone in the band. Doesn’t mean that some haven’t done it, but, usually the story is told mostly through one or two people… like The Doors was mostly Jim Morrison, Control was mostly Ian Curtis, Backbeat was mostly Stu Sutcliff with John Lennon second and everyone else just window dressing…

    Joan Jett had (and has) the best post-Runaways rock’n’roll career and recognition so I can see why she is a main focus, and she and Cherie had a pretty famously intense relationship in that band as I recall; at least, it was more known about than the other band dynamics.

    I’m not going to quibble over something like this. The movie The Temptations tried to cover everyone equally (at least that’s what I remember) and I don’t think it turned out a particularly great movie (not that that necessarily was the reason).

    Anyhow, I’ll be off to see it and I promise to report back here. I know everyone just can’t wait!


  • Orangutan

    But I haven’t heard of a modern one in a long time

    Two that immediately spring to mind are D’arcy Wretzky of Smashing Pumpkins and Lyn-Z of Mindless Self Indulgence. Both are bass players. And come to think of it, White Zombie had Sean Yseult, also on bass. And to further show my age, The Breeders and L7. Except for MSI and Breeders, though, these bands are all broken up, so I know they don’t qualify for modern.

    I did some digging around, and it seems like you’re right, female guitarists abound, but they’re almost all solo acts. Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Melissa Etheridge, etc.

    The only other really modern (past 5 or 6 years) example I can think of is Orianthi. She’s pretty much solo now, though, but Wikipedia tells me she played for a lot of bands and other acts.

    Again, not modern, but does Chrissy Hynde count? She’s a vocalist, but she also plays guitar.

  • LaSargenta

    There are a lot of women playing rock who aren’t on mainstream radio, etc.

    Star Fucking Hipsters, for example, has a kick ass bassist named Yula Berri. Go look for her in Google Images. (Their singer, Nico, is also female.) Admitedly, most I’ve noticed are part of the punk scene which has historically been a lot more open to bands making a point and maybe having a non-traditional line-up than mainstream rock.

    I do enjoy watching Witch Hunt on stage. Bassist and one of the guitarists are female.

    And back in the day, I’d like to remind everyone of Tina Weymouth (of Talking Heads), Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) and Gaye Black (of The Adverts). Bassists all.

  • To the list of bands with female bassists I’d like to add the Seattle band Visqueen. Their single “Vaxxine” got some airplay but I don’t know how popular they are.

    At the time I was actively listening to them, their bassist was Kim Warnick; according to Wiki their current one is also a woman, Cristina Bautista. Anyway–good stuff.

  • Ryan H

    Silversun Pickups have Nikki Monninger who is as fine a bass player as you could ever hope to hear. Saw them open for Muse the other night. Quite the act if you have the chance to see them.

  • LaSargenta

    OK. Why are so many of us bringing up bassists as representative women in rock? Why are so many women in rock bassists?

    (I suck at the drums, but that’s my instrument. I only know a couple of female drummers personally.)

    I tell you, though, my ex (not a female, but he played bass) used to always say that you didn’t start dancing until the bass kicked in.



  • mortadella

    Some awesome name drops here. Don’t forget Alison Mosshart of The Kills. She shares guitar and vocal duties with her partner, Jamie Hince. They’ve got a great garage-punk/minimalistic blues sound. Their last CD, “Midnight Bloom,” is gorgeous.

  • LaSargenta

    mortadella, you did it to me…

    Some awesome name drops here.

    …I’m going to succumb…

    HEY! SHOUT OUT TO HOLE and Courtney Love…no matter what anyone wants to say about Love and Cobain, I love me some Hole.

  • cranscape

    The rest of the band did not sign off on the film which is why they legally couldn’t be included more. I’d love Lita Ford to have had a real role since she is an awesome musician and did see success after the band broke up, but she passed up on that chance. The film was based on Cherie Currie’s book and Currie and Ford didn’t have the best relationship so it probably wouldn’t have shown her in a good light anyway. For me Jett’s story is the most compelling one, but that isn’t the perspective the book was based on. Good start though.

  • Mo

    I did finally think of one single recent mixed group where both of the girls were the guitarists: The XX. But they downplay it and I guess even they are going through a lineup change now.

    If we’re writing lists, I’m surprised no one mentioned the girls in My Bloody Valentine, but they started a long time ago. And of course there’s Hole.

    But my original point was that most examples are more arty or punk and much more underground. You’re not going to hear a Nickleback or Daughtry or Foo Fighters soundalike- basically a top 40 rock staple- with girls in prominent roles in it. That crowd of guy fans will not accept it and the major labels won’t back it. The only major exception to that in the last ten years has been Meg White. There were periods of years where she was the only girl in the entire top 20 or 30 artists on Last.fm, and it was mainly because Jack is so amazing.

    OK. Why are so many of us bringing up bassists as representative women in rock? Why are so many women in rock bassists?

    But that’s just it. Even in that window of time up to the Spice Girls and Britney (when record companies decided that only women who show their midriff can be in music) when more women were getting into rock, it was usually as bassists not lead guitarists.

    One of my favorite bands is Sons and Daughters, which has two girls and two guys in it. But even there the girls sing and play bass, the guy plays the guitar. There’s the Subways, but again, bass. We could probably make a pretty long list of bass players, but they still wouldn’t be lead guitarists.

    Two thoughts: Bass was where women first got a toehold like with the Talking Heads and Sonic Youth, and they had a big influence on what went mainstream in the 90’s. Women are much more likely to follow their example because there are plenty of bassists to look up to.

    Other thought? Your band won’t get bottled if you let a girl play bass. The perception seems to be that the lead singer is the star and the guitarist is the second in command- whether true or not- so as long as a bassist keeps quiet and plays well it doesn’t matter if she’s in more of a background supporting role because she’s easier to ignore. It’s sort of OK if the girl is the lead because girls can sing and you can look at them. If both main roles are filled by girls it’s a girl band. If the lead is a guy and the guitarist is a girl it creates some sort of power imbalance that the crowd won’t like and the big star’s ego might have a problem with.

    I just think of Virgin Festival last summer. Metric was on right after Dinosaur Jr. Near the end of Dinosaur Jr’s set I started moving toward the front for Metric. The moment Emily Haines walked on stage the crowd was against her. The group I had ended up behind was leaving by the first chorus saying really derogatory things about her. “Who does she think she is?” “I’m not watching some ___ girl!” and so on. More groups walked past and it was more of the same. They played “Monster Hospital” second which won over some of the people who were about to leave, plus their regular fans had started to work their way forward, but they really had to work for it for the first while. THAT’s the attitude I’m talking about. That’s why it’s so hard for women to break through in music unless they fit into the Joni Mitchell or Madonna mold. It doesn’t matter what role you play you are going to get more abuse for it than your male counterparts, and they’re going to get more abuse than if they didn’t play with a girl.

    Saw them open for Muse the other night. Quite the act if you have the chance to see them.

    Muse AND Silversun Pickups? Wow, I’m jealous. :P

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Cor, I love that someone mentioned Sons and Daughters.

    Modern rock, I agree, is pretty much a desert for interesting female musicians; everyone seems to want to either be Lady Gaga or Kate Bush. I do like Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes – if you only know them from more poppy stuff like ‘Never Forget You’ and ‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm’ you should check out earlier, punkier tracks like ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘Sister Rosetta’.

    Janet Weiss has drummed with Sleater-Kinney (the last notable all-girl punk band I can remember) and as part of Stephen Malkmus’s backing group, as well as with my own personal unsung heroes Quasi. She’s particularly awesome on some of the earlier Quasi albums like Featuring Birds and The Sword of God.

    And Alison Goldfrapp is far more interesting and unique than any woman fronting a pop band usually has the right to be.

  • HPL

    It’s really strange that no-one’s mentioned PJ Harvey.
    Or did I miss something?

  • RogerBW

    OK. Why are so many of us bringing up bassists as representative women in rock? Why are so many women in rock bassists?

    If the bassist is crap, the band won’t work. Bassists who can get the job done are a lot rarer than adequate singers or lead guitarists, so even if the other members would rather not have a Girl in their club they may have to give her a chance.

  • LaSargenta

    Metric was on right after Dinosaur Jr. … The moment Emily Haines walked on stage the crowd was against her. The group I had ended up behind was leaving by the first chorus saying really derogatory things about her. “Who does she think she is?” “I’m not watching some ___ girl!” and so on.

    WTF?! There’s plenty of bands I don’t like; but, I gotta say, if I don’t like ’em it is because of their music, not because of who they are or how they look. If I went by how people look, I’d hate any show where Andrew Weiss played because despite his punk cred for all these years, he looks like a minimalist Deadhead on stage. (Not that he’s personally unappealing, it’s just the shaggy hair and bare feet I’m talking about. And I cannot stand the Dead.) If anything, something unexpected or different is cool.

    Shit. Bunch of unadventurous sexists.

    @ Bruno, I gather it isn’t only girls who want to be Kate Bush: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyUfZhArk1U

  • I was distracted by the fact that the film doesn’t have enough time, really, to do justice to both Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. If I had to choose, I think the film has less for Jett to do than Currie, who sits around looking like she’s waiting for a movie about the Blackhearts to start. Both Stewart and Fanning are good with what they’re given, though.

  • I’m surprised no one is mentioning Amanda Palmer whose piano playing has a certain frenzied Jerry Lee Lewis quality though her music isn’t exactly hard rock and her instrument of choice appears to be the piano. I guess we’re all either way too influenced by a certain John Cougar Mellencamp song or we’ve allowed Billy Joel to ruin the rep of rock-n-roll piano players for all time. Then again certain people could just be suffering from a bad case of pianist envy because playing a keyboard on stage–that’s so Wendy and Lisa…

  • Alli

    I’m going to have to throw The Gossip out there too. I know many of the UK and Australian readers here may find them annoying because of their popularity, but they’re not as big here in the States. Anyway, Beth Ditto is pretty fierce, and (for LaSargenta) they have a female drummer in Hannah Blilie. If you can ignore how often she’s in the tabloids, I think Ditto is the closest thing we have to a “I-don’t-give-a-F***” pop/rock/disco-punk sex symbol.

  • Rocksta123

    I haven’t seen the film yet, because it isn’t playing where I am, but I ultimatly think it’s going to be a great film! I do have some things to mention (pretty much what everybody else is saying though), but it’s like what are you going to do, the movie is done. The movie seems to be more about just Joan and Cherie’s relationship in the The Runaways rather then “The Runaways” themself. I felt they could have gave more into The Runaways in a whole since that’s the name of the movie and all. I mean they could have made it a little longer since it’s short or I guess found a title that would have gave it more justice since it’s not fully about The Runaways. In a way it’s also kind of selfish since it kind of excludes the other members, but only an opinion. It’s done, what can you say?!

  • ralphy

    I haven’t seeing the movie yet but plant too! looks cool.Meanwhile there is only one Godmother of punk! and her name is PATTI SMITH!!! She is the first woman to take rock n roll to the next level in the 1970’s All these women mentioned above have to bow down to her and she still kicks ass today live! There’s a Great book called “please kill me” It’s the Bible of the Original Punk scene it explains everything beginning with the Velvet Underground to the Stooges ,Patti Smith, new york dolls, Ramones, Blondie and etc.

  • angelica

    The movie is based on a book written by Cherie. So, it makes sense that it focuses on her (and Joan) more than the others. And from what I hear, they weren’t able to get the rights to include all of the band members as significantly as some people would like. But this movie really is incredible. And Kristen Stewart’s performance as Joan is the best part of this movie. She really makes the movie what it is. There is one scene in particular where she shines, that is the main reason I went back to see this movie a second and third time. Also praiseworthy performances include Dakota Fanning, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, and Michael Shannon.

  • Dave

    My point isn’t that the exclusion of those characters doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s that it takes away the bio part of bio-pic which reduces it from the story of Joan Jett to the story of a character called Joan Jett which I am less interested in. If they are ok with cutting two people completely out of the picture what else did they change to make it a better movie? You would be amazed the changes that are made to “true stories” when they get made into movies.

  • LaSargenta

    *BUMP* Just saw this at the first show @ the Sunshine.

    Pathetic TRU FAX: That opening bit where we first get to see Joan? When she dumps the change all over the counter and delivers her awesome introduction? I burst into tears. Serious tears.

    OK, so the movie isn’t perfect and I was pretty damn shocked that the where-are-they-now bit at the end in the credits didn’t tell us anything about Sandy West and Lita Ford and Jackie Fax.

    But, for this member of the audience, it rocked.

    And, I really liked the cinematography. It felt like 70’s rock’n’roll.

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