Grrrls-Eye View of The Runaways

Twilight stars representing an influential all-woman rock band? I hate Hollywood.

That was my initial response to learning of the new feature film about the famed band The Runaways, written/directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. The film follows a group of young women who defy social standards and start a band under the “guidance” of a 35-year-old man, record producer Kim Fowley. Drugs, alcohol and manipulation by the sexist, power-hungry Fowley lead to the band’s early demise. Currie retreats to a comfortable cookie-cutter lifestyle while Jett goes on to become a rock legend.

My initial concern was that the film’s Hollywood status and teenybopper cast would delegitimize the era, the scene and the women it sought to portray. But The Runaways could have been a lot worse. I am a Kristen Stewart fan (gasp) and thought her performance as an awkward, shy, incredibly cool tomboy was convincing and relatable. Fanning breaks out of her child-star box in this role, but her performance lacks the effortless confidence that Stewart exudes.

In my perfect world, the film would have been The Joan Jett Story, providing an intimate portrait of the androgynous musical backbone of The Runaways. I would rather have followed one well-developed character than several minor ones, as Sigismondi did. Nonetheless, there are moments of triumph.

Righteous scenes where grrrls (yeah, that’s right) say ‘FUCK YOU’ to society include one in which Jett browses in the men’s section of a thrift store and is told by a rockabilly saleswoman that she is in the wrong place. Jett approaches the counter, dumps out a bag of coins, motions to the saleswoman’s boyfriend and says, “I want what he’s wearing.”

In another scene, Currie lip syncs to David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at her high school talent show and is barraged by boos and leftover lunch. Rather than slinking away, she lifts her fists and turns both middle fingers up toward the crowd. And lastly, Jett receives guitar lessons from an older male folk singer and asks to play something fast with bar chords. He replies, “Girls don’t play electric guitar.” She defiantly turns up her amp and starts wailing.

Maybe the film will provide a new generation of grrrls with inspiration to think for themselves or to embrace any career, hobby or fashion despite its gendered connotation. Unfortunately, the popularization of hipster culture and the notion that quirky is cool makes “being different” more of the same. I hope young viewers do not see these women as vehicles for conformity, but as social outcasts who endured painful and lonely lives simply for the freedom of being themselves.

Grrrls should also learn about women musicians who have succeeded on their own, without a Fowley-type manager, have resisted drug and alcohol addiction and do not rely solely on  sex to promote themselves. These less-dramatic accounts have to be sought out by individuals rather than handed to the masses on a silver screen; Hollywood is more likely to cash in on a Stewart/Fanning drunken make-out scene. Artfully done, by the way. 

The Runaways hits select theaters March 19th.

Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/twilight-foxdie/ / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Great review, Erica! I’ve been cautiously optimistic about this film since I saw the preview. I never made it to a Runaways show when they were together, but I did catch Joan Jett at a club in Dallas, opening for Iggy Pop early in her solo career. The crowd was incredibly nasty to her, yelling insults and throwing things at the stage. Not only was she brave and powerful, but she turned up and succeeded in drowning them all out!

  2. And how, if at all, does the film depict Jett’s sexuality? Or the sexuality of any of the band members for that matter? Are they just hot bad girls or do they really embody their own sexual (and personal) agency?

  3. What about the kiss? Erica, I need to know about the kiss!

  4. FR- Jett shows interest in both men and women in the film, but seems too cool to have a preference. A girl friend kisses her and she just keeps playing her guitar. She ditches a potential love interest at a club to talk to Fowley about her music career. Music is the main focus in her life. Currie has an affair with Scottie, the road manager, and shares a love scene with Jett. She seems more emotionally involved than Jett and is the only member who is explicitly seen as a ‘hot bad girl.’There is hardly any information on the other grrrls; like I said, they are barely developed.

    Cat- It’s well done, music video style (Sigismondi’s most familiar medium). Artsy and restrained but still sexy (not in a ‘girl on girl’ way, but in a ‘Joan Jett is so cool’ way).

  5. Thanks for the great review–refreshingly honest and critical take on the industry.

  6. Thanks for a great review. Can’t wait to see the film. Love your opening line, btw. I’m really feeling that one today!

  7. Very inciteful stuff. Gave me a real flavor of the film and your own critical appraisal. Sounds like it’s worth a look, maybe.

  8. Enjoyed the review–wasn’t sure that I would be interested in the movie–my curiosity is piqued by your article.

  9. Meshugganashicksa says:

    I am 42, white and straight (to put it all in context) and I saw the film yesterday. I can comment on some questions posters have raised. I don’t intend this to be another comprehensive review. It may or may not be worth 2 hrs and a couple of bucks; if you love Joan Jett, have an intellectual interest in how film portrays same-sex activity or follow the work of Kristin Stewart, Michael Shannon or Dakota Fanning (they’re all very good) then do see it.

    As a film, I think it is poorly made; choppy, falls apart toward the end, all the things some of the national reviewers have said. But I LOVED LOVED LOVED Joan Jett as a teenager and I LOVED LOVED LOVED Kristin Stewart’s portrayal of her. I remember some boys in high school dismissing Joan (and therefore all of her music) as a “dyke” and until recent years when she’s started showing up at the Dinah Shore party in Palm Springs and stuff, you never really knew about her. It was like, well, she fixes her hair and wears eyeliner and lipstick, so maybe she’s straight. Then again maybe not becuase it doesn’t seem like she cares about guys. Then you realized it didn’t matter anyway because she’s so damn cool. She’s just sexy as hell, because something else (music) drives her. Kristin Stewart totally captured that because I kept wanting to see what she would do next.

    There is quite a bit of girl-girl kissing (not just one scene, all of you who were wondering) and affection and it portrays Joan, Cherie and Sandy as being open to that. Joan seems like the most likely to be gay (but you’re not totally sure), Sandy seems girly but possibly gay and Cherie seems straight but likes to be kissed and held- by anyone. Then nothing about the sexuality of the other band members. I think that there is more same-sex sexual activity among teenage girls than people realize, and maybe kids do that even if they are straight because it seems less scary with a girl friend than with a guy. Those scenes in the film seemed as if they were between two friends, not “girlfriends”. And at least for Cherie Currie who talks about this with Spin magazine, she was not “in love” with Joan. She also says in that interview that she wants kids to know that that kind of thing is OK. I think it is too; there is way too much fear in our society about sex. And of women too.

  10. I really liked this film and thought Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning did a great job. I loved how the film depicted the bond between Joan and Cherie that apparently continues to this day, since Cherie’s book is the basis for the film exec produced by Joan. It wasn’t a perfect film but what is? It was a pleasure to see a film with strong female leads with attitude.

  11. Pam Redela says:

    I liked the film too! I thought Kristen Stewart was WAY better as Joan Jett than as Bella…

    I did wonder, however, about the lack of "where they are now" that came up at the end of the film in regard to Lita Ford. She went on to have a pretty successful music career, but was never mentioned in the closing credits. Snub?

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