Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Floria Sigismondi, director & writer
Based on the memoir “Neon Angel,” by Cherie Currie
Starring: Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie), Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett), Michael Shannon (Kim Fowley), Stella Maeve (Sandy West), Scout Taylor-Compton (Lita Ford), Riley Keough (Marie Currie)
When I grew up in the Sixties, women didn’t have their own rock groups. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were icons and definitely rock’n’rollers but they were lead singers, not virtuoso guitar players. It took another decade and a determined young woman named Joan Jett to change things. Turns out you can be a sexy girl and play hot guitar: who knew?
Kim Fowley did—or at least he thought he could market the idea and make a million. One of the stranger denizens on Sunset Strip, Fowley had produced some of the quirkier hit singles of the early Sixties: Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles, Papa-oo-mow-mow by The Rivingtons and the absolutely mad They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-ha by Napoleon XIV. Fowley was probably not completely right in his head but he certainly had a great notion: get a bunch of beautiful young Southern California girls together and turn them a band.
And thus—as the Bible might put it—The Runaways were begat. Kim Fowley caught lightning in a bottle but he didn’t recognize it. Joan Jett was awesome—hate the word!—a young woman as possessed by the guitar as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Sandy West was a fine drummer and Lita Ford latterly turned into a light metal queen with global hits after the group broke up. And lead singer Cherie Currie was a gorgeous, tragic rock goddess in the making, who helped to propel The Runaways into hit makers.
Now, there’s a film that tells the story of this conflicted, intensely talented band. The Runaways is directed and written by Canadian Floria Sigismondi, who graced this town with her talent as a photographer and videographer for two decades before she headed out to pursue fame and fortune in L.A. Yep, another Canadian story where “we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Floria made award-winning music videos with David Bowie, the White Stripes, Sigur Ros and Marilyn Manson while living here but had to go to Hollywood to make a film.
And what a film. The Runaways has perfect casting, the prime requisite for a great movie. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are movie replicas of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. Like the rock star originals, these young actresses are lovely, charismatic and talented. Kristen Stewart, already a force after Twilight embodies the dark, insular talent of Joan Jett but even more of a revelation is Dakota Fanning, an acclaimed child actress, who rises to her first adolescent part as Cherie Currie with a curious combination of sexiness and gravitas that seems true to the character and is immensely appealing on screen.
The Runaways tells the story of the first successful all-girl band. (The Andrews Sisters had guys backing them up; so did The Supremes.) Michael Shannon, a fearless acting talent, Oscar nominated as the dysfunctional friend in Revolutionary Road, takes on Kim Fowley with a ferocity that feels absolutely authentic. He put those young women together and then lied, abused and mistreated them. And still they became a success, partially because of Fowley.
Cherie Currie was the essential figure in the band during its nascent stages. Critics and audiences hadn’t caught up with the instrumental talent of Jett, Ford and West but they understood Cherie, a hot young singer, prancing on stage in her corset. The band broke all the barriers but Cherie was the first one to garner acclaim.
Sigismondi catches all of this and more. Basing her story on Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, she recounts the tale of a twin who abandoned her sister and alcoholic father for fame and fortune on the road. Much of the narrative flows from Currie’s book, which is the somewhat standard tale of fame & excess and either death or survival.
Thankfully, Cherie Currie is alive and, of all things, a “chainsaw artist,” constructing art out of wood. Jett’s story—Runaways 2?—is the tale of a young woman who was obsessed with the guitar and music: as her global hit proclaimed, “I Love Rock and Roll.” Someone should tell it in more detail than this film has the time and space to do.
The Runaways is frantic, melodramatic and—curiously—uplifting. It should be a hit. I implore you to go to theatres this weekend and make it so.