Sunday, March 21, 2010

Love: The Runaways

The master list of my guilty pleasure films is heavily populated with movies that rock.  Give me a girl group, a pack of boys in platforms, a glitter sheen and some electric guitars and chances are I'll be willing to give the movie at least a couple shots.  I love the energy of the scene.  The casual corruption, the clothes, the coon eyed make-up and the soundtrack it produces.  I've watched Todd Haynes's flawed glam epic Velvet Goldmine at least a half dozen times, hold pop tart tales like camp fiasco Spice World and Josie and the Pussycats dear, and have a soft spot for Russ Meyer's slasher soft-core Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

I won't be the first person to point out how similar the meteoric rise and fall of The Runaways was to Beyond the Valley's girl band The Carrie Nations.  That film, a piece of fiction (from the mind of Roger Ebert, no less), seemed to partially predict the narrative arc of the teenage superstars five years prior to the band's birth. Of course, it's just a matter of rock formula. Everyone loves to watch the making of the band, the success of the band, and the downfall of the band.  It's pure music industry fable; do everything right until your get everything wrong.  As a film, The Runaways doesn't necessarily try anything new.  What it does do, however, is take enough chances with its cast and get enough pieces right to create something that captures the essence of rock's filthy downside while simultaneously making something compulsively watchable.
The real life Runaways were the result of a chance pairing of drummer Sandy West with amateur guitarist Joan Jett. Connected by music producer (and club presence) Kim Fowley, when they returned to him with material, he assembled other members and became the group's enigmatic svengali; encouraging them to shift from ambitious, edgy teens into out-and-out sexually aggressive members of rock's boy's club.  With feathered-blonde, Bowie-obsessed 15-year old Cherie Currie plopped into the role of lead singer, the Runaways were young, but they had genuine rock star swagger.  Long before Madonna, before Britney or Christina; Cherie, Joan, Lita, Sandy, and Jackie vamped and tramped and reminded the world that they could, in fact, jump out of adolescence fully formed and dangerous.
Director Floria Sigismondi has cast her junior deviants perfectly.  Kristen Stewart sheds the trappings of Twilight's Bella and embraces the gritty, bad ass persona of Joan Jett.  Dakota Fanning, too, is reborn as Cherie Currie.  Say goodbye to the days of her as precocious child actress.  The Runaways, for Fanning especially, is her Jodie Foster moment.  As a film, it might not be Taxi Driver, but it's at least Foxes (which, appropriately, the real life Cherie Currie actually starred in).  All the girls hold their own, and you can believe them as these women. Here in lies what is, perhaps, the film's biggest success.  That while we can say yes, they were just teenagers.  Yes, these were kids dealing with family issues and slipping into lives of addiction and promiscuity.  Yes, it would be easy to name call and cite the true life and fictitious forms as exploitive... the film doesn't judge.  The camera looks on impartially and allows its characters, these young women, to speak on their own terms.  What they have to say may be uncomfortable for some audiences, but it's undeniably their own.  Even as they pop uppers and downers, we know that when it comes to their personas, they were/are completely in control of their aggressions.  This is a teenage wasteland.  This is what it looks like: tattoos, Farrah Fawcett hair, dog collars and stage lingerie.  It's every parent's nightmare and every teenager's secret dream.

Sigismondi gets that.  Even as the Runaways indulge in questionable behavior and slip into the cliche, shock value moments of lesbianism (unfortunately, the soundtrack choice for the Stewart/Fanning moment of passion is "I Wanna Be Your Dog", a favorite song I will not work hard to dissociate from this cheesy cinematic instance),  the film captures something really quite interesting.  It's perspective is slanted in a way similar to the dreamlike moments of Almost Famous, but without the moral imposition.  Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) has his motives.  He stamps these girls as jailbait and trains them to become men, to treat music like a weapon, and to tease.  He's a dark figure, but strangely ambiguous, reminding them as he pesters that this "is not about women's lib" but instead about "women's libido."  I found it hard not to like these girls, even as they made decisions that would be stupid in almost any context.
Of course, the film itself is mildly problematic.  While the casting is perfect and Stewart and Fanning easily keep their cool even in the face of seasoned, wild-eyed Michael Shannon, the story is a little fragmented and scattered.  It can't seem to decide where its focus lies.  Is it on the band as a whole?  Certainly not. Lita Ford, surprisingly, gets almost no play here (perhaps this was her own decision?).  Is it on Joan Jett (who produced the film)?  Yes, a little bit, though her character background is not as established as one might think.  Is it on Cherie Currie (whose book, Neon Angel served as the film's basis)?  More so.  We see the most of Currie's character and the family she comes from.  Yet, there are so many fits and starts to the film that it's hard not to feel crucial development has been excluded.  We, the able minded filmgoers, are made to fill in the gaps ourselves.  We know, from repeat rock narratives, that they'll wind up on drugs.  When the drugs appear, we expect it.  When it gets worse, we knew it would.  The Runaways doesn't take the time to dramatize the in-between.  It just wants to stick to burning out beautifully.  It skims the surface of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, doesn't become a biopic, but instead a celluloid portrait that takes enough raunchy risks to feel true, but isn't as down and dirty as it could/should be.  Still, it's colorful and reckless.  Sometimes (and these times are few), a thin plot can be made up for with a consuming energy.  Yes, I would have preferred a more in-depth story with heavier dialogue, but I absolutely believed this version, too, and I enjoyed spending time in this sun-baked netherworld.    
The real-life Runaways (from left: Lita, Joan, Jackie, Sandy, Cherie) 

1 comment:

  1. I am so jealous that you got to see this. Why, oh why won't it come down here?

    ReplyDelete

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