Saturday, February 5, 2011

"The Runaways" (2010)

Starring Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart and Michael Shannon
Written and directed by Fioria Sigismondi

The Runaways [Blu-ray]No, this is not an adaptation of Brian K. Vaughn's excellent "Runaways" comic book.  This is a dramatized story of The Runaways, a groundbreaking all-girl rock band of the 1970s.  I have to admit that while I'm familiar with The Runaways' rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Joan Jett, I had not heard of this initial band at all.  I remember being intrigued by the film when it was getting a limited release in theatres last year, but it never played anywhere near me as far as I can recall, and I'm just now able to watch it via the magic of Netflix.

Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is a rebellious teen girl.  She paints her face like David Bowie and gets booed off the stage at her high school talent show.  She spends her nights hanging out a clubs she's far too young to be going to, but gets into anyway.  Cherie also hangs out with her sister, Marie (Riley Keough) and her boyfriend.  She lives with her mother, a bitchy failing actress who kicked out their father and is getting married to a businessman from Indonesia. 

Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is a rebellious teen girl.  She scrapes together money to buy leather clothes and spends her time drinking and learning to play guitar.  Joan tries to take lessons, but finds that her teacher believes that "Girls don't play electric guitar."  One night out at a club, she spies Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), whom she recognizes as a record producer.  She approaches him, but he tries to dismiss her until she tells him she plans to start an all-girl rock band.  Intrigued, Fowley hooks Joan up with a drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and tells the girls to practice a bit and give him a call.

When Fowley is impressed with their sound, they go on a search for a lead guitar player, bassist and singer.  The former two roles are filled by Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin (Alia Shawkat playing a fictional character since the band's real-life bassist declined to allow her name or likeness to be used in the film).  One night, Fowley and Joan find Cherie at a club and, impressed with her look, ask if she can sing.  She replies yes, and the two agree to let her audition for the band.  Soon enough, the band is together after Cherie manages to belt out a dirty number called "Cherry Bomb" written by Joan and Fowley.

Not long after that, under Fowley's tutelage, the girls learn how to behave like rock stars.  They go on the road, playing a number of increasingly larger gigs until they're finally signed to a record label.  The record proves to be a success, and the band is suddenly on a whirlwind tour that takes them to Tokyo, Japan.  But by this point, things have begun to strain.  Joan and Cherie are now heavy drug users, and Lita resents Cherie as the face of the band who seems to get all the press.  Back at home, Cherie's sister struggles to care for their ailing alcoholic father, and can't seem to get any help from Cherie at all.

What would any rock biopic be without a healthy dose of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll?  "The Runaways" features all of these things, but rarely goes into any real depth with anything but the rock'n'roll.  For an R-rated film, it's fairly toothless save for some bad language.  The characters are thin, saved only by the terrific performances of the cast.  The script is underwritten, rarely letting us know that we've shifted forward any appreciable amount of time even though the film takes place over the course of several years.  A sexual relationship between Joan and Cherie happens... but there's again no real exploration of it.  We have no real idea what this relationship was to either character, and even less of a sense of the historical context of either person.

Those are some pretty mighty complaints, and yet none of it truly derails the film.  There's an energy to the proceedings that is undeniable, despite the fact that the rest of the damn thing is pretty rough.  I suppose one could say that about The Runaways themselves.  They were hardly masters of technical precision of their craft, and yet they managed to plow ahead with sheer power of their catchy, bitchy punk rock.  While the film can get bogged down in certain things (after a while, Fowley's "rock is about men's cocks" speeches get quite repetitive, as do the fights between Cherie and her sister), when it focuses on the band and their journey toward and through stardom, it's actually quite watchable.  Even more surprising, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart do some of their own singing here and it's quite good.  It's probably some kind of blasphemy to say that I think Fanning's cover of "Cherry Bomb" is (only slightly) better than the original.

Kristen Stewart is a hard act to peg.  I've seen her in some small roles here and there such as "Into the Wild" and "Adventureland" and actually thought she wasn't so bad.  But what I've seen of her "Twilight" role is just freaking terrible.  She's not given a lot to do here other than to take drugs, make out with Dakota Fanning, play guitar and occasionally go into a rage.  But when she does grab hold of something, she really does quite well as Joan Jett, especially later on in her frustration over the disintegration of the band. 

The real star of the show is Dakota Fanning.  The film focuses mostly on Cherie, and Fanning simply owns it.  She has real, palpable presence as Cherie.  It's a startlingly mature performance, it's only a shame the film around her isn't written better to support it.  If there's one real reason to watch "The Runaways," it's for Dakota Fanning.  No longer an odd-looking child actress, she's showing us that she has something to offer as a teenager and will hopefully continue to do so into adulthood.

"The Runaways" is problematic, but has great performances (especially Dakota Fanning) and some fun rock'n'roll energy to bolster it.