The Runaways

“It’s not about women’s lib,” the manager of 1970s all-girl rock band screams at them during a rehearsal that wasn’t raunchy enough for him. “It’s about women’s libido!”

Well, not exactly, as we come to learn. Rock ‘n roll is definitely about libido but it’s not about women’s libido–it’s about men’s libido. Teenage men’s libido to be more exact. It’s about their sex fantasies, their need for an outlet of their aggression. Almost as if to set the record straight, later the manager screams at them again. This time he’s perfectly clear. He grabs his crotch ala Michael Jackson. “I’m going to teach you to think with your–”

And think like the nastiest parts of the male psyche the girls end up doing. Casual sex, drug use, alcohol. They become brainwashed, not always unwillingly, to lose their identities as girls and become the fantasies of young men. And not nice young men, who would cherish them and want to take them home to meet Mom, no, these are men who are essentially nasty narcissists. There are no nice men in this movie, no good role models that maybe the girls could have seen to balance out their experience of men. I can assure you this is tale is neither about women’s lib, nor women’s libido. It’s about teenage girls who were lead down a drug-laced rabbit hole.

The Runaways is the highly touted biopic of the first successful all-girl hard rock band that exploded in the 1970s, lead the way for other female rock performers and set the career of the main survivor of the group, musician Joan Jett. It’s the debut feature of Floria Sigismondi who directed and wrote the script. Sigismondi earned her filmmaking stripes as a director of musical videos, and as an artist with a distinct avante garde style. In a story set in pop culture excess, director Sigisondi has made a film that is exquisitely understated, no gratuitous showing-off, no pandering to shock for the mere ability to have the talent to do it. It is a stunning debut and I can’t wait to see her next film.

Joan Jett, the group’s dark-haired electric guitarist and lyricist is played by Kristen Stewart. Yes, that Kirsten Stewart from Twilight and she’s absolutely terrific. Angry, driven, mixed up, almost feral–she is the raw power behind the group. The singer is Cheri Currie, a virginal David Bowie/Brigitte Bardot hybrid played with mind-boggling energy by Dakota Fanning — yes, that Dakota Fanning from Charlotte’s Web. She becomes the group’s wildly popular sex kitten. Other members, four or five, depending on the time, play significant roles in the band’s history but not in the movie, which concentrates on the coming together then the dramatic divergence of the two main players.

Both young women–and I do mean young — Dakota Fanning in real life was only 15 when she played this part and so was Cheri Currie herself–turn in performances that are mesmerizing and impossible to forget.

Adding to the acting talent is Michael Shannon who plays the group’s manager, Kim Fowley. He is perhaps the most repulsive, near-satanic character on screen in ages. His performance was so spot-on realistic that he literally made me sick.

All the group members are Valley Girls from the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, runaways from dysfunctional families who find some kind of tribal sense of community with the band. Joan Jett is the most needy of the group. She admits, “Without The Runaways, I’d either be dead or in jail.”

The character of Cheri Currie is given the most background, perhaps because the script is based on her autobiography Neon Angel. She has a twin sister (an identical twin in reality, a fraternal twin in the movie) who acts as her consciences–and it is the sister who stays home to take care of their wretched alcoholic father while Cheri goes off to pursue her dream of fame and glamour. Later when Cheri finds she’s had enough reality, she claims she wants to leave the group to return to her family. Joan Jett is heartbroken. “Aren’t we your family now?” she asks. The rift between the girls is now as painful as one of Jett’s poignant lyrics.

Under the whip of manager Fowley, the girls become a band that competes successfully in the harsh male world of rock music. They attain everthing they think they want–fame, money, critical and popular success. But they never read a book. They have no hobbies. There’s no such thing as a walk on the beach or the smell of a fresh air. They never hold a shy boy’s hand and kiss nervously at the local drive-in. No, it’s all drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And it can’t last forever.

The most shocking thing to me about the movie is that this is the story of girls. The Runaways are sent on the road without one adult to supervise them. They are in essence children, thrown into a hellish nightmare. They are not even old enough to vote — and they are behaving like older men on a suicide mission.

Some other critics are saying The Runaways is merely a well-made rock biopic, following all the conventions of the typical rise and fall of rock bands. That is not true. This is a story about the destruction of girls in a world ruled by uncaring men. Some of the girls survive and do well — Joan Jett went on to continue her music career and become a role model for independent women musicians. Cheri Currie tried acting for a while, but basically she dropped out. She’s now a chainsaw artist in California. The other gals had varying degrees of success or dropout. What they endured however lived on after the group dissolved. They became the inspiration–for better or worse–for the girl bands that followed.

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