The biggest problem you generally encounter when Hollywood tries to make a movie about rock musicians is the overwhelming tendency to dilute reality and surrender to the cheese factor. Honestly, filmmakers have gotten it right exactly twice: first with Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap – a work of blindingly brilliant satire – and later with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous; which, though a work of fiction, would be hard to top for its feeling of authenticity, in my opinion.
When I heard that a film was in the works about the 1970s all-female teenage rock band, The Runaways, like most rock fans who were around at the time the band was actually together, I assumed it would suck outright. When The Runaways debut album came out in 1976, I was a 15-year-old Queen fan who attended school dressed like Freddie Mercury. Being entirely obsessed with Rock & Roll – glam rock especially – I totally related to this group of girl rockers who were just a year or two older than me at the time.
When The Runaways were recording and touring, it was easy to assume that they must be having the times of their young lives: touring the world and rocking out, free of any parental supervision. The truth, as it has come to light over the years, was a bit different. The Runaways were forced to grow up fast; abused by their adult handlers, subject to sexual assault and heavily immersed in a drug culture most teenagers of that era couldn’t even imagine. How would Hollywood put a sheen that kind of gritty finish?
Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie) and Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett) in The Runaways
Although not due for wide-release until April 9th, I saw The Runaways here in NYC yesterday and am delighted to report that it is an excellent film: overwhelmingly dark and brutally honest with nary a hint of cheese in the mix. A key to this film being so very good has to be the excellent casting. Both Kristen Stewart (whom I’ve always found to be a rather wooden, one-note actress) and Dakota Fanning are excellent in their roles as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon (who garnered an Academy Award nomination for his brief role as a mentally ill dinner guest in Revolutionary Road) deserves another Oscar nod for his spot-on portrayal of the Runaways’ sadistic manager/producer Kim Fowley.
Beyond that, with the script being largely based on Currie’s autobiography, Neon Angel, and the film being executive produced by Joan Jett, I was afraid that The Runaways would portray the band as Cherie Currie, Joan Jett and three other nameless girls. While that is not entirely the case, it isn’t one hundred percent reality, either. The late Sandy West (portrayed authentically by Stella Maeve) has a decent sized part and Lita Ford (portrayed by actress Scout Taylor-Compton, who is the spit and image of the teenage Lita Ford) has more than a few lines. But the Runaways’ bass player is neither original bassist Jackie Fox (Fuchs) nor her replacement Vicki Blue (Victory Tischler-Blue) but a fictional character named Robin (portrayed by Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame).
That casting/scripting choice may have something to do with fact that Joan Jett completely shunned Edgeplay, Tischler-Blue’s excellent, revelatory 2005 documentary on the band, refusing to license even one Runaways’ song to the project. Perhaps the two former band mates have washed their hands of each other. Similarly Jackie Fuchs, now an attorney, refused to give the rights for her likeness to be portrayed in the film. Other than that one bending of reality, the only altering of a real life character is Cherie Currie’s identical twin sister, Marie, (portrayed by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough) who seems to be playing a sister one or two years older than Cherie. I’d guess that was done to avoid obligating Dakota Fanning to play a dual role.
Again, it can be emphasized that The Runaways is primarily a vehicle for the rise of Joan Jett’s enduring career while simultaneously showcasing Cherie Currie’s downward spiral into a drug habit that took her a decade or more to kick. Dakota Fanning’s embodiment of Currie is remarkable and heartbreaking to watch, while Stewart literally becomes Joan Jett. Both actresses are just fantastic in their roles and should be very proud of their work in this film. Tons of Runaways’ songs infuse and enliven the excellent soundtrack, along with a good selection of Joan Jett’s solo work with The Blackhearts, as well as songs of the day such as Nick Gilder’s “Roxy Roller,” Suzi Quatro and vintage David Bowie. I can’t say enough good things about a movie that you should be putting on your “must see” list when it hits a theater in your town.