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, 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 gladiatorial 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 hecklers 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 accede 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.