Yes, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning star in this one, but for anyone expecting a natural progression from a certain vampire series, a word of warning (or endorsement, depending on your point of view): The Runaways is dripping with sex. It’s about music fuelled by the furious desire to have an orgasm, a celebration of the X chromosome, chicks with guitars and other feminist thesis fodder. The Runaways is just the latest band biopic to vamp on that familiar riff of sex, drugs and you-know-what, but with the girls finally taking centrestage. Played by Kristen Stewart, Joan Jett exudes badass. Shag-haired and clad in a guy’s studded leather jacket – there are precious few female role models for her to look up to – she’s hell-bent on breaking some strings and blowing some amps. When a music teacher informs her that “Girls don’t play electric guitar,” she chooses to take it as a personal challenge. Providing counterpoint is Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, a platinum blonde nymphet who is just as much a rebel and misfit as Joan; she is quietly, perversely pleased by the violent reception she gets for her David Bowie lip-sync performance at a school talent show. Joan and Cherie (and a couple of not-as-important band members) come together under the tattered wing of rock impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon from Revolutionary Road). The Runaways are born in a derelict trailer park, with Joan on the axe and Cherie rocking the mic, as they promptly bust out their feisty classic ‘Cherry Bomb’ with next to no effort.
As you might expect from Sigismondi’s credentials, The Runaways looks and sounds great. It has a grainy, gritty visual style that perfectly complements the rough-edged energy of the music. What lets it down is the script, which seems to have been assembled out of hazy memories during a bad hangover. It was based on Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, Cherie Currie’s 1989 memoir, which partially explains why the movie turns into the story of Cherie – the one who ended up running away from The Runaways. There is, subsequently a big blind spot where Joan’s personal journey should be. One gets the impression she ceases to exist when she unstraps her guitar. It’s a missed opportunity.
That said, Kristen Stewart looks good in a leather jacket, and is terrific as Joan Jett. Heck, when she knocks together her own Sex Pistols T-shirt and casually flips herself the V in the mirror as she’s trying it on, you believe she is Joan Jett. Unlike Robert Pattinson, whose dreadful Remember Me opened a week earlier Stateside, Stewart proves herself a very capable performer, and leaves the Twihards coughing dust in her wake. It was a calculated decision to leave Bella Swan far behind, but the right one to make. Dakota Fanning is also remarkable as the girl thrust unprepared into fame, no doubt a story she knows well. Thing is, it’s hard to get behind her the way you want to, since Sigismondi has a knack for moving on quickly just as things are getting interesting – the film, for instance, hints at a relationship between Joan and Cherie but then doesn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps another byproduct of Sigismondi’s music video experience: she doesn’t want to linger for fear of being boring.
Just as the original band owed their success to part-manager, part-pimp Kim Fowley, this movie gets it mojo from Michael Shannon, who is in a class of his own as the cocksure Fowley training his chicks. It’s Fowley that brands the girls as fetish objects, works them like a drill sergeant at band boot camp, exploits them, abuses them. (Verbally that is. It’s been suggested that Fowley abused them in ways not purely verbal, but that isn’t addressed here.) It’s a fierce performance of the sort of character you only get in real life – since in fiction he’d probably need some redemptive qualities. America didn’t really warm to all-girl ’70s rock group The Runaways the first time round. They barely made a dent in the charts and disbanded after five years. If this film achieves anything, it’s bringing Joan Jett and The Runaways to a whole new audience, which is nice. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t quite manage to rock as hard as The Runaways did.