Rock 'n' roll is presumed to be a man's business, and The Runaways in some ways illustrates why. The rage and blatant, narcissistic sexuality expressed by countless male rockers from Elvis to Mick Jagger becomes uncomfortable, even disturbing, when it is young girls doing the raging and teasing.
But as a culture, we shrink from the aggressive and raw displays of female emotion that nevertheless give the music biopic The Runaways its considerable thrill-value. A portrait of the formative days, wild-fire success, and then burnout of the influential '70s California all-girl band, the Runaways, the film shows that it's one thing to be a rebel and it's quite another to be a girl rebel.
Helmed by the Italian-born music video director Floria Sigismondi and shot in a golden, mottled light that makes Los Angeles look like mid-summer Provence, The Runaways is as stylishly honey-toned and authentically grubby as it is kick ass in its portrait of female energy chained to the universally cathartic force of rock 'n' roll.
Mopey and solemn, with her chin perpetually dug into her neck, Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart) is a budding rocker in search of a band. She hooks up with Los Angeles record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a creep in glam-rock lipstick and eyeshadow. Fowley recognizes the novelty value in an all-girl rock act and goes after a pretty singer, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), to endow the band with some sex appeal. It would be tempting to say that Currie and Jett have daddy issues that are exploited by Fowley, what with their drunk and absent fathers and bad mommas (Currie is played by Tatum O'Neal).
In Currie's audition for the band, played out in a tiny backwoods trailer as cramped and claustrophobic as that underground bunker in The Lovely Bones, Fowley and Jett are inspired enough by Currie's wide-eyed sex kitten look to write "Cherry Bomb." Some of the bawdier and funnier moments in The Runaways center on the verbal and visual excesses of the lewd, abusive Fowley.
Threatening to steal the show from all the girl power is the hypnotic Shannon as the darkly charismatic and self-interested manager, a foul-mouthed Svengali who addresses his charges as "you bitches" and instructs them in the essential pelvic-focus of rock 'n' roll. The irony of the age is that as glam rock enthralls boys to the cult of androgyny, eyeshadow, and lipstick, Fowley recognizes that women have to butch-up and get tough to compete.
The subtle but important woman's point of view that Sigismondi gives the film comes through in the way the girls are subjected to creep behavior from various men, but are nobody's victims. We see Jett told by a self-assured guitar instructor that "girls don't play electric guitar," and Currie booed off her school's stage during an artsy talent-show tribute to Bowie. Significantly, the boys in the audience throw trash, and the girls applaud. It's a theme of the film, the male disdain or hostility toward female performance, and the female embrace.
Sigismondi is undeniably the right woman to tackle the Runaways story with her own rocker looks and counterculture sensibility. An artist whose work has appeared alongside other important contemporary artists and a music video director for bands like Marilyn Manson, the White Stripes, and the Cure, Sigismondi brings something of the music video-maker's kit bag to The Runaways. She has style to burn, shooting with a maximum of grit and haze and sexy bursts of swoony excess.
Characteristic in its mix of sex appeal and wit is the tongue-in-cheek montage sequence charting the Runaways' success. The segment is modeled on old Hollywood montage sequences but features sizzling neon text and a knowing attitude. During the moments when the Runaways perform, in a low-ceiling club or a Japanese venue in front of screaming schoolgirls, cinematographer Benoit Debie's camera is a gloriously unhinged, unfettered thing, circling the girls, capturing the whole glamorous, self-destructive whirl of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Sigismondi is less accomplished at building a sustained effort; the film lags a little near the end as Currie stumbles through the usual rock 'n' roll curse of dead-end drug addiction. But that doesn't matter ultimately: Sigismondi's heart is in the right place. She has a purity of purpose. And with her visual chops and a soundtrack rich with glam-rock standards, she accomplishes the remarkable feat of making the Runaways radical, even by today's jaded standards.