Runaways, The

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Film Fest 2010–The first feature of Floria Sigismondi on the rise and fall of the seminal 1970s all-girls rock and roll band, “The Runways” never quite transcends the structural limitations of the historical biography.

It is energetic and exceptionally well made and sharpened by three dynamite performances that help cover up the soft or historically compromised aspects of the storytelling.
A photographer and video artist, Sigismondi has a perceptive eye for compositional detail. She’s also very good at capturing the fragile, tentative interior consciousness of young women. She is helped immeasurably by the skilled and virtuoso performances of young actors Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. They play the rockers Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, respectively. They mix the tender and volatile sharply and convincingly. They give the work both a hot wired intensity but also some emotional traction.
Sigismondi’s screenplay is adapted from Currie’s memoir, “Neon Angel,” and Jett is an executive producer on the film. The perspective is very much from their point of view, largely eliding if not wholly omitting the importance of other band members Sandy West, Lita Ford, Jackie Fox and Vicki Blue. The movie’s bassist, Robin (Alia Shawkat) is a narrative invention who represents a composite of the four or five bassists that played in the band.
The bulk of the action covers a roughly two-year period beginning in the summer of 1975. It is a seminal period, musically, as the underground Los Angeles music scene, spurred by the nascent punk movements in New York and London, exploded with a restlessness, intensity and generational distrust and anger.
Sigismondi’s movie has a transgressive, provocative opening that begins with a close up of a drop of menstrual blood hitting the pavement. A girl on the cusp of adulthood, Cherie (Fanning) is a stunning blond beauty perched between vixen and holy innocent. She’s also unafraid and highly confident of her own abilities. She moves to her own beat, preferably the look and music of David Bowie. The movie has a breathtaking early moment where Cherie detonates a high school sophomore talent show with her glorious and imaginative cover of a Bowie track.
Jett (Stewart) is also a solitary figure, a loner with a hard edge and take no prisoners style. In that period of young women identified exclusively by their sexual availability, Jett announces herself as something different and unusual. A habitué of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in Hollywood, she makes a direct connection to Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a vital and influential rock impresario, about forming an all-girls band.
Guile opportunist and showman that he is, Fowley immediately recognizes the potential of the act and quickly forms a three girl band with Jett, Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton). The identity and soul of the band takes shape when Cherie is invited to audition for the group as the lead singer. Intending to perform a Peggy Lee standard, she’s ostensibly laughed at. Fowley comes up with a beguiling alternative, an impromptu lyrical arrangement that becomes the foundation for “Cherry Bomb,” the group’s first significant hit.
In February of 1976, the band signed with Mercury and recorded their first album, “The Runaways.” From there, the structure takes on a more recognizable and less giddy shape that charts the mercurial rise and sudden collapse of the band. The other band members are marginalized, and the movie fixates on the triangle of Cherie, Joan Jett and Fowley.
Tasked with both authentically reproducing the past and making it dramatically viable, Sigismondi works well in miniature, precisely drawing out the various rivalries and emotional and sexual entanglements of the group. As the band begins to move about the country, Sigismondi takes advantage by staging some propulsive set pieces that starkly underline the group’s appeal, their musical limitations and perhaps their defining legacy, the empowerment and liberation the group would pass on to successive female musicians.
The middle passages look at the band’s joyous ride, including their memorable Japan tour where their popularity and fame reached its zenith in the summer of 1977. Again, this is where the movie turns somewhat flat. It is an accurate rendering of group’s activities and movements, but it lacks the excitement and dramatic revelation of the opening sections.
Sigismondi and her cinematographer Benoit Debie find a more kinetic and emotionally piercing moments in the quiet, plaintive passages, like a beautiful shot of Cherie with her face isolated by the glass as she sits in the touring bus as it floats down the highway. That moment crystallizes the confusion, joy and painful loneliness of the girls.
Sigismondi’s take is that the very thing that drove the band’s popularity, Cherie’s beauty and intoxicating sexual persona, alienated the rest of the band that would eventually lead to her departure from the group to seek a solo career. The movie is much stronger, more disciplined and dramatically compelling by examining the intricate byplay of the two young women’s personalities.
At times the movie feels very much compromised, as though Sigismondi is somewhat leery of really tracking what if any kind of intimate relationship might have passed between the two young women, or whether it was simply post-adolescent experimenting.
Fortunately the three lead performances compensate for the movie’s weaknesses. Kristen Stewart has had her life taken away by her work in the “Twilight” films, but she's been a terrific actor for a long time. She's perhaps inchoate and finding herself off-stage, but she's a presence that finds the right mixture of quiet intensity, steely intelligence and naked vulnerability. That ungainliness and awkward intensity is not an act.
Dakota Fanning is also astonishing good as Cherie Currie. She’s made the leap from a precocious young girl to a controlled and skillful young woman. It is a commanding performance, but it is the quiet, self-reflective moments where she acknowledges the character’s pain and discomfort that registers with an authority and precision. Shannon (hardly surprising) is coolly effective as the flamboyant showman that helped make and unmake the act. (The movie skips over the still controversial question of whether he was a sexual predator toward the young women.)
“The Runaways” is not great art, but it is a good movie about a great subject. And that’s pretty darn cool.