Break On Through: The Runaways


A great rock n’ roll movie is the one that gets the blood coursing in your veins. After watching The Runaways, which released this week, the first thing I wanted to do when I left the theater was jam at full volume.

For those of you too young to remember (or never heard about at all), The Runaways were an all-girl teenage rock band that formed in California in 1975. At a time when rock n’ roll was shifting towards faster tempos and amateurish ease, boys in leather jackets and dirty jeans were learning how easy it was to form a band. Meanwhile, their eager counterparts were encouraged to stay put in a hypocritical paradigm. Like Joan Jett’s guitar teacher (Damone!) explained so bluntly in the movie:  “Girls don’t play electric guitar.”

The hell they don’t. Gender bending was already a staple of rock n’ roll. But if guys like David Bowie and the New York Dolls could prance around onstage in women’s clothes, why couldn’t a bunch of sweaty, angry, bad ass girls plug in and go crazy in front of a stack of amps?

And so the defiant Runaways formed in Hollywood when drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve’s part in the movie) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), having each toyed with the idea of starting an all-girl band, were introduced by Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sleazy record producer who eventually became the band’s sleazy manager. Fowley was a lot like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who died of cancer last week) in that The Runaways was a concept band, and the other members — lead guitarist Lita Ford, lead singer Cheri Currie, and a rotating lineup of bassists (due to legal issues, the fictional Robin Robinson represented Jamie Fox) — were recruited more for attitude than ability to play instruments or sing. Although historically labeled “teenage jailbait,” Kim Fowley clarified in the documentary Edgeplay that The Runaways weren’t T & A. These were girls who  just didn’t give a shit (and had no reason to), and they modeled themselves on their rock idols which, aside from Suzie Quatro, were guys.  Bowie, Keith Richards, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, and others. And even when Cheri Currie strutted on stage in Japan in a Betty Page corset, she looked ready to dominate, not be dominated.  (Baby-faced Dakota Fanning made it seem more innocent when reenacting this in the film).

And so The Runaways were born. The movie is obviously a limited biopic, which is a shame considering the renewed interest in the band that its likely to generate, especially among young audiences since it’s basically been marketed as That Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning Movie. Because it’s based on Cheri Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, the focus is primarily on the relationship between she, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. But Currie’s career really fizzled out after she left the band, and aside from Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, who teamed up with Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne, achieved some access as a solo artist after The Runaways disbanded.

The Runaways ran the risk of limited release teeny bopper mediocrity, although it surprisingly proved otherwise (and a lot of credit is owed to its leading actors). It’s tricky pulling off a story about a handful of angst-ridden teenage girls in way that doesn’t come off as utterly trite (see Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen), or drowned in gender politics as it did in say, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (which is probably the closest cinematic kin to The Runaways). While in reality, rock n’ roll was still very much a man’s world in the 70s, The Runaways is just the opposite. Most of the men in the film are either ineffectual (like Steve, the road manager), or utterly vile, like the Currie sisters’ alcoholic father and the band’s manager, Kim Fowley. (Though that’s not to say that even the women in the film can’t disappoint – Currie’s mother was a real flake).

Because it’s a movie based on an American band that formed before the benign (and incredibly boring) Age of Extreme Political Correctness, the movie revisits the grime that’s been lost to recent cultural gentrification. Albeit, it’s a grime of West Coast flavor (rather than say, abysmal New York City in the mid 70s). The Runaways is chock full of dirty clubs, dismal prospects, ambitious sleazebags, absentee parents, booze, drugs, leather, cigarettes, and sex. And to have a handful of angsty teenage girls at the center of this chaotic playground makes it all the more naughty.

The Runaways oozes in ferocious rebellion and blissful sexuality, the very essence of rock n’ roll. Canadian artist/director Floria Sigismondi had the right sensibilities for this kind of material, having come from a background in fashion photography and later, directing music videos for bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, and David Bowie. More than just a band’s tale unfolding in a pristine reconstruction of the 1970s, Sigismondi injects periodic “artsy” display like the ebb and flow of an orchestra – the rich reds and blacks at the height of their decadent fame, stop-and-go action during the big performance scene, the dreamy sequences of excess, and the bleached aftermath. Suddenly the abstract of music has texture, and what better way to reveal rock n’ roll than through a band like The Runaways?


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