Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Runaways

I guess I'll be the one to ask the question: why The Runaways? Why an entire film dedicated to the short-lived exploits of a band that barely charted in this country thirty five years ago, has had arguable lasting appeal (readers under the age of 30, name a song by the band other than "Cherry Bomb," and no cheating) and minimal influence on our current music landscape when digging out an old episode of Behind the Music would more than suffice. Both Blondie and The Go-Go's were performing during the same period in history, wrote more memorable songs and, if VH1 is to be believed, generated far more R-rated drama and in-fighting, so what exactly is the appeal here of a group of pubescent, unsupervised girls getting high, playing loud music and occasionally have sex with each other and whatever roadie or fan that gets pulled into their gravitational pull of teenage debauchery? Geeze, I just don't see it.

The Runaways the film, like The Runaways the band, is a calculated grasp at the forbidden fruit of teenage female sexuality hiding behind a flimsy fig leaf of feminism. Dramatized here as literally plucked from a crowded club because she had the right look to front an all female band, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) seemingly ascends to the level of rock goddess before it's established whether she can carry a tune. Such is the appeal of a 15-year-old who looks like Bardot meets Bowie with no hang-ups about writhing on stage in a corset and stockings. After first laying eyes on Currie, Michael Shannon's suitably creepy record producer Kim Fowley screams "jail fucking bait!" and it's not hard to imagine the producers of The Runaways thinking the same thing as they lined up a murderer's row of barely and not-at-all legal starlets to appear in the film.

Fanning, a spookily-self aware performer from an unfathomably young age, made headlines a few years back after appearing in Hounddog, a little-scene independent film where her character was raped on screen. But the real coming out party is The Runaways where the actress, only now old enough to drive as of this writing, gets to strut, growl, grind and have PG-13-safe make-out sessions. Currie, spit up and chewed out before she was old enough to legally buy cigarettes, seems less born of parents than of rock and roll cliches. Never shown as being moved by the music and often annoyed by the attention lavished on her by the media, Currie's just as driven to escape humdrum suburbia as she is to sob for the return of life at home with her supportive older sister and sick father. The character is aimless, lost in her own story, and Fanning is helpless to find purpose behind those wide and sad coked-out eyes.

The Runaways attempts to balance Currie's vacantness with bandmate and beating heart of the band Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart in an ink black mullet and bored expression) who resents the perception that the band is a gimmick act and wants to rock just as hard as the boys do. Visually, Stewart perfectly resembles a young Jett, returning to her pre-Twilight form as sexually androgynous and snarly lipped. Yet the actress remains, as ever, a passive and indifferent performer, suitably aping the guitar licks but little of the rebel spirit. The film is framed as a star-crossed romance between Currie and Jett, even ending with Jett's cover of "Crimson and Clover" as the duo make-up long distance after years of resentment, yet it seems unwilling to fully commit to their sapphist tryst as anything more substantial than teenage puppy love.

The disconnect between Joan's "I Love Rock and Roll" ideals and Cherie's cover girl ennui would make for an interesting take on the material. So, for that matter would be the way female musicians are marginalized by the male-driven media, placing their sexuality before their talent. The film toes the line of exploring the creepy cultural fixation on sexualizing young women before their time, a ticking clock of obsession that seems to expire the second a woman becomes of legal age, yet it curiously depicts most of the band's screaming fans as young women, flying in the face of Fowley's titillation battle plan for rock domination.

Instead writer-director Floria Sigismondi (a first-time filmmaker but a music video mainstay for decades) forgoes a point altogether, trotting out every music biopic chestnut, from drugged-out hazes, to band squabbling, to splashing unattributed headlines and magazine covers across the screen to assure us, the dubious viewers, that this sonically limited act did, at one point, matter. Most egregious of all, the film commits the same sin it's theoretically criticizing, focusing on Currie and Jett at the expense of the rest of the band, denying them characters, secondary personality traits or even perfunctory title cards at the end of the film to explain what happened to them after the band broke up.

Watching The Runaways, I was reminded of another, better musical biopic, 2007's Control about the late singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Control never presumes Curtis' or the band's influence or importance, nor reduces them to a series of on the nose sound bites and "oh, so that's how that song was written" moments. It had genuine pride and respect for the process of making music and the tormented artists who made it, and lets that speak for itself. It lacked the cynicism that permeates The Runaways which does as much to promote the talent of the band as a beer commercial featuring their songs would and treats its cast as underage pin-ups. As the film was co-produced by Jett and adapted from Currie's memoir, it has the odd side-effect of an artist proving their naysayers correct. Congratulations ladies: you can be as much of a soulless marketing tool as men!

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