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film friday

The Runaways

  • Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi
  • Starring Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon and Kristen Stewart
  • Classification: 14A

The new rock movie The Runaways is no masterpiece, but what do you expect from a film about a 1970s' exploitation girl band best-known for the song Cherry Bomb?

Yet, to her credit, Canadian director Floria Sigismondi has created a movie that's more interesting than the band that it's about. While serving its commercial purpose as a vehicle for teen stars and Twilight: New Moon alumnae Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, The Runaways captures the sleaze and innocence of the era and has some still-relevant things to say about the conflict between girl-rocker empowerment and exploitation.

The film opens with a quarter-sized spot of blood hitting a sidewalk. The sidewalk is on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, the blood is menstrual - perhaps a nod to Brian De Palma's crypto-feminist horror movie Carrie. Either way, it's a declaration that this is teenaged girl territory.

Early scenes cover the band's beginning in a conventional order. Guitarist Joan Jett (Stewart), who has her costume and bad-ass attitude down better than her guitar chops, meets drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) outside a club. They're introduced by producer and mad-man Kim Fowley (captured brilliantly by Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon).

Fowley likes the marketing potential of Jett's all-girl rock band and starts putting together the package. Soon, he becomes their preposterously self-important guru and sleaze-ball Svengali: "Not women's lib, women's libido," he screams. Fowley puts them through his version of rock 'n' roll boot camp, teaching them to scream "I want an orgasm" while tossing dog turds and bottles at them to prepare them for hostile audiences.

Tenth-grade singer Cherie Currie (Fanning) is selected because of her Brigitte Bardot nymphet looks, though she's almost tossed out when she shows up for her audition prepared to sing Peggy Lee's Fever. Based on Currie's book Neon Angel, the film focuses on her troubled family life and how her drug use and increasingly sexualized image causes conflict with the other band members.

Stewart, who adopts Jett's hunched posture and punk mumble, lets her hungry stare do all the work. She wants to be a real rocker, not just a star. Fanning's Currie, by contrast, is the baby drama queen, a frail narcissist who can't help marketing her nubile sexuality because it gets her the attention she craves.

As well as The Runaways captures the dynamic among the three principal characters, some elements of the story are disappointingly hazy. What exactly is that lingering kiss between Jett and Currie about? And other band members get only peripheral attention. Lead guitarist Lita Ford, who went on to become a sort of hair-metal eighties sex symbol, also drops out of the on-screen text epilogue. Sure, she was embarrassing. In most ways, so were The Runaways - and you can't just run away from the past.