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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No More Teachers, No More Books: Rock N’ Roll High School


There’s a rumor that, like damn near everything coming out of Hollywood these days, the 1979 comedy, Rock n’ Roll High School, is unfortunately slated for a remake. So far, the details are scant. IMDB has sealed the information to public — at least those that don’t have Pro subscriptions — but, Wiki contributors reported that Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) was tapped to write the screenplay for Howard Stern’s production company. The original film was initially conceptualized as a vehicle for Todd Rundgren, and later Cheap Trick, but ultimately came to hail the halcyonic ethos of slovenly, leather-clad rockers, The Ramones. You know, that teachers and principals suck, that classes are a waste of time, and they’d rather be cruising for chicks in muscles cars, as the lyrics to their title song go.  (Dee Dee Ramone once remarked how he hated the film because The Ramones looked like simpletons).  It’s like a demented Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that it’s silly and trashy and made on producer Roger Corman’s notoriously stingy budget. In other words, it’s pure fun.

The movie takes place at Vince Lombardi High, where the horrible, uber-strict new principal, Evelyn Togar, has declared war on rock n’ roll, which she blames for her students’ utter disregard for education and discipline, driving previous principals to nervous breakdowns. Cult movie queen, Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Motorama) was rather ironically cast in the role. She kicked around with Warhol’s Factory when they used to perform nonsense theater onstage with the Velvet Underground in New York City a few years before The Ramones broke out there (read Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s excellent book, Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk).

Nonetheless, the Principal’s reign of terror can only last for so long, and when Principal Togar interferes with Riff Randal’s (P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie) chances to see the Ramones in concert and consequently, her opportunity to give them her song “Rock n’ Roll High School,” she enters a contest to get them to come to her school instead. Eventually, the Ramones invade and rile the students’ to a successful, if somewhat oblivious coup. (Ironic still, is Woronov’s part, in that despite the overthrow by teenage rock fanatics, she returns in the forgettable sequel, Rock n’ Roll High School Forever, as the principal).

The high school rock n’ roll rebellion film is dated, which makes it hard to believe there could be a suitable remake. At least if it’s something set on the modern day campus. Characters in today’s films, and especially teenage films, are fairly innocuous, and the “school sucks” credo of those films would undoubtedly be dismissed as being far too politically incorrect, especially given the massive criticisms of the American public education system. Plus, with the disappearance of the original carnations of punk (and that kind of garage rock, which is what the Ramones really were), with overt, simplistic politics, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable band fitting for the part. In other words, who are the Ramones of today? That kind of comical dissatisfaction with school is even absent from rap. It went out when duos like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, and Kidd n’ Play, stopped making songs about ditching class and getting in trouble with their parents. Rock n’ roll got deep and emotional. Rap got hostile and sexual. It’d be difficult to remake Rock n’ Roll High School for the same reason that you couldn’t make movies like Smithereens, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains, Repo Man, and similar early punk-themed movies  anymore… grime and trashiness, even when it’s characters are funny (as the Ramones and the students of Vince Lombardi High School were in 1979), isn’t appealing anymore. Just as our geography has become so massively gentrified and homogenized, so too has our culture.

After seeing what Alex Winter did as co-director and co-writer of the science fiction comedy, Freaked, maybe there shouldn’t be any groaning yet. Winter, borne out of that wariness with mainstream cinema, could do something very interesting with the screenplay, and perhaps it’s even more appropriate that he should be working with Stern, who of course, built his career on being intentionally crude and shocking. Crude, at least, is what Roger Corman’s films embodied.  Though, who knows what stage it’s at, or whether it’s ever really going to lead to the rumored remake. Nonetheless, what is scheduled for a definite 2010 release is Shout Factory’s collection of Roger Corman classics, which will include the original Rock n’ Roll High School.

You can also watch the full movie on YouTube (until, of course, it gets flagged). Click here for part 1.

One For My Brother: A ‘Best Of’ List


(DRAFT) Anecdotes and commentary on Gilroy Drastik’s Top 10 favorite movies… (as hard as it was to limit the list to just 10)…

Jaws.

Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!

Inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, Spielberg’s 1975 iconographic movie of the predatory Great White terrorizing the fictional northeastern Amity Island (filmed at Martha’s Vineyard) was adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. Ironically, Benchley has said if he’d known a bit more about the behavior of Great Whites, he’d not have written the book as it was. Although, when approached by Doubleday, the writer was told that what they wanted wasn’t non-fiction. They wanted a story about a shark terrorizing a town. For once the Creature Feature was enormously successful (rated among the top 250 of IMDB) and only slightly corny (the obvious moments when on-screen actors are dealing with difficult, animatronic puppet). Despite the intensity and suspense that establishes Jaws as one of the greatest horror movies (or maybe plain old thriller is a better genre heading), it was followed by several sequels, a shitty NES game, and one incredibly ridiculous cheesy theme park ride that only nominally have anything in common with their predecessor film (they were definitely “some bad hat, harry!”).

In a nutshell, the plot centers on the newly ordained Amity Police Chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) who inherits a major dilemma in his initial service – a string of shark attacks during the Island tourist town’s busiest season. Initially met with stupid, yet understandable political and economic pressures bearing down on him as to whether the beaches should be shut down, a few deaths has the small town eager for a quick solution like taking row boats out and a hanging a slab of meat on a fish hook, waiting to throw a handful of dynamite in a hungry shark’s mouth. But, Brody, ever the pragmatist, solicits the help of a university-trained marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a wry traditionalist boat captain (Robert Shaw, who also starred in The Deep, another sea-side Benchley adaptation) to put an end to the town’s crippling threat – a great white shark.

Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies…

In part, the movie has survived the test of time because of the cool of its leading late actors, Roy Scheider (Brody) and Englishman Robert Shaw (Quinn). But, it also survives as an example of effective elements in suspense that went beyond the transparent thrills and scare tactics that have saturated most modern American horror. Jaws manages to bring all of its nervous development to a claustrophobic climax rigged with intense doubt – will three desperate men aboard a rather small boat managed to finally put an end to the small town’s persistent terror?

It’s been said that the beach population was significantly down in the year of Jaws‘s release, something understandable where audiences were just as unfamiliar with shark behavior as the author of its source material.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE REST OF DRASTIK’S TOP 10