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?

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.

Cherries or Bombs? The Runaways

Due out this year is The Runaways, a biopic about the bad ass girl band of the 70s that made glam rock legends of bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The good news is that it’s been a while since any films about rock n’ roll’s rebellious women have surfaced in the mainstream  (could Smithereens have been the last?!). The bad news is that the actresses playing The Runaways — which includes Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning — don’t really seem hardened enough for the part.

Can they do it? You’ll just have to wait till the movie comes out… or until someone spoils it for you.

Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean

While  The Legend of Billie Jean hasn’t yet made the transition from obscure VHS to DVD, it looks as though it’s a possibility, thanks to fervent nostalgics that transformed the ballyhooed 1985 teen movie into a cult classic. (Yeardly Smith did record DVD commentary for Sony, who was supposed to have released it by now). Surprisingly, those with a Netflix account, can endure the technological limbo, and add the movie to their Instant Queue.

This film is an odd product for its day, given the kind of movies that once typified the teen genre. Amidst numerous, cheaply produced T & A comedies (Private School, Spring Break, Porky’s, etc.), which indulged the exploits of mindlessly horny adolescents, John Hughes would soon become an 80s icon with sincere portrayals of American youth, both in drama and comedy. Elsewhere, a sub-genre of C-grade films that, seemingly inspired by 1950s pulp fiction, raised paranoia about the urban teenage timebomb (i.e. Class of 1984, Savage Streets, 3:15). Well, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Legend of Billie Jean. The B-grade action-drama (which includes a tasty foot chase!) isn’t set in the halls of the All-American high school, the comfort of Middle-class America, or even the grimy streets of the inner city, but more unusually, was filmed in and around the coastal Texas city of Corpus Christi.


With a Hall Pass in Hand: American Teen

American Teen was immediately criticized as it began generating attention at Sundance in 2008. The original promotional material featured the five teenagers at the heart of Nanette Burstein’s documentary in poses and costume nearly identical to those in the Breakfast Club. The previews even pre-defined their roles: The Geek, The Princess, The Jock, The Hearthrob and The Rebel, arousing suspicions that this reduced these people’s stories to palatable, packaged frames, symbolic of a disingenuous adult view of teenage life.

Generally, film-goers tend to hold documentarians to a level of scrutiny that assumes them to be objective observers of their subject. This is not a pure documentary in that sense, and in fact it might be better described as a pop documentary. The filmmaker’s placement does shape environment, and in all stages of production, there are deliberate choices of what to focus on. And for Burstein, it is the concept of the modern American teenager.

Early on, there were criticisms about lacking authenticity in a different regard. Namely, the noticeable lack of variety in the town’s residents, making a film who’s sociological importance could only be generalized to middle-class white American suburbia. In American Teen, there is only one non-white high school school student featured. And every other seemingly “taboo” subject from homosexuality to promiscuous sex to divorce is muted. The sprinkling of teenage drama in the briskly edited montage that made up the trailers suggested a “documentary” that sanitized taboo realities, only to fill the gap with sexier sensationalism.


Titty Power: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

“We need to make being poor cool again.” – John Waters, This Filthy World (2006)

The 1980s was really the last decade of true grime cinema. The unusual and corrupted sadly disappeared in the tide of national gentrification. And, reluctantly or not in film, dilapidated city life was traded for Rob Reiner-esque Americana. The vanguard of modern film-making was eventually traded for censor-safe subjects. And, it, and its sister world of contemporary art, really stopped being daring.

Director Lou Adler’s and writer Nancy Dowd’s über-obscure punk rock epic, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains was already probably considered passé when it was released in late 1982 (Dowd’s pseudonymous writing credit, Rob Morton, symbolized her displeasure with the final product). Although it came out around the same time as the similarly grimy, low-budget punk-themed movies, Smithereens and Times Square, post-punk and New Wave had already started taking over as the next musical epoch. The chord combinations too few, the angst too redundant, and the drugs too plentiful were punk’s problems. Shot over a two year period, it was released to near-obscurity, even with its ties to well-known music icons and convenient timing (Mtv was born), and it only just made the transition to DVD last month. As a movie that really isn’t all that original — it centers around the the triumphant marriage of music and youth rebellion — the significance of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains lies in showing just how far from drawing lines in the sand film-making has become lately. While it arrived long after curtains closed on the first wave of punk, it did arrived in time to be part of the last vestiges of grime cinema.

Diane Lane was just 15 when she starred as Corrine Burns, the typically baffling, teenage “misfit” orphan turned equally baffling superstar heroine in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The film opens with a reporter interviewing the distant teenager as a follow-up to her minor stardom when she was seen on the news being fired at the fast food place where they were doing a story. Shocked by her indifference more than her having to absorb continuous disappointment, the reporter finishes the interview with that typical rhetorical question so replete with disgust and demand: “What are you going to do with your life?!” (Cue the Kelly “Shoes” video!)

Corrine envisions future celebrity and her novice, three-piece all-girl punk band, The Stains (which features a mere 13-year old Laura Dern as “Peg”), are their only ticket out of dingy, hopeless Dodge. “Were there even girl bands before this movie?” Diane Lane asks on the DVD commentary (the Lane-Dern commentary is a great additional feature), frequently citing this movie as the inspiration for a lot of bands’ sound and image. It sounds like an excessively self-congratulatory claim, but it’s especially possible that The White Stripes drew on this movie for plenty of their retro red-and-white imagery. But to answer Diane’s question… yes, there were the Runaways, the girls who didn’t give a damn about their bad reputations. However, the angst-ridden girl bands never really came about in full effect until much later, and most notably with the Riot Grrrl period in the 90s.

But Corrine’s escape from Dodge as the band gains minor success is not without cynicism, hardened further by the two bands they tour with. Tubes lead singer Fee Way Bill and guitarist Vince Welnick played The Metal Corpses, an aged duo of extremely self-indulgent 70s rockers who desperately ignore their obsolescence. The other band is the British punk outfit, The Looters, which featured Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, and ex-Clash guitarist Paul Simonon, while Ray Winestone (who most recently played Frank Costello’s, Mr. French, in The Departed) takes the lead as the band’s frontman, Billy.  They all compete with one another in their bid to be famous and even the most well-meaning can be corrupted; everyone’s got a price.

But the Stains, as young girls never taken seriously to begin with, use outrageousness, rejection, and altruism to their advantage, and like the characters in Time Square and The Legend of Billie Jean, they eventually become the headlining success. Not surprisingly, their fan base are screaming crowds of equally alienated teenage girls, something that might be called neo-feminism, had the loyalists who adopted the band’s look (they call it “Going Skunk”) and slogans and lyrics not been shallow followers. And breaking their devotion takes no more than a simple, obvious warning from an unlikely source: Billy who reveals just how shallow they are. That the spectacle had gotten too far out of hand. (The Stain’s big hit single, “The Professionals,” (actually a Sex Pistols original) was stolen from Billy).

Diane Lane, on the DVD commentary, suggests that this is a film in dire need of a remake. Dirty word that “remake” might be, that grimy Bohemia, the drastic differences in the music industry then and now, and the silliness of a youth rebellion epic would probably get lost in translation if anyone tried to update the story. Sadly, there are few films anymore that really depict the relationship between music and youth as a driving social force, especially where the central characters are teenagers. The closest it has really come lately, at least in more popular film.

“You can’t make a movie like this anymore,” Laura Dern accurately observed. It featured plenty that would set off conservative censors today: the fighting was authentic because stunt people weren’t hired, the kids were shown to be chain smokers, and even at 15, Diane Lane was filmed partially nude for a brief shower romance with Billy. Grime cinema was low-budget, and daring was the default because on the one hand, controversy drew the cult appeal (look at John Water’s catalog of films), and on the other, because there wasn’t much money and expertise in making the films (see Susan Seidleman’s acclaimed debut feature film, Smithereens). The era of grime cinema produced a lot of shitty films (although so did those outside of that context), but it also produced a lot of cult films of note. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains probably isn’t likely to generate a sudden rise in notoriety, even with the careers that Diane Lane and Laura Dern have both established for themselves, but it is at least a glimpse into where the limitations of the medium used to be (music-wise, too). American films today are too clean and even those considered the new avant garde within the last decade alone have more often been visually daring rather than topically so.

Failing to Merge: Less Than Zero

Though an author, Bret East Ellis is the predecessor to the likes of contemporary dramatic filmmakers like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, those who have brought to the screen a startling (and at least in Van Sant’s case, very stereotypical and monolithic) view of extreme teen apathy. Ellis’ 1985 novel, which captures the mood of the decade, Less Than Zero centers on vaguely connected, college-age friends and trust-fund babies in Los Angeles. Their world lacks any real human emotion, any real human connection to one another, whether friends or family. Their concerns and legacies trivial, a fantastic reality of youth corrupted by uber-urban materialism. This, the 1980s. 

College freshman Clay returns to Los Angeles from New Hampshire on Christmas break and the novel is told from his point of view, but its stream-of-consciousness descriptions of mundane events feel more like a diary of dull consistency. The routine of parties, drugs, and gossip. But the theme, the significance of this particular book become clear about half way through; just before the point where the reader might be ready to give up on the really unglamorous life of people who believe themselves to be truly glamorous. And it is Clay who is acutely aware of this, his insulation in the East Coast life has made the West Coast one alien, though from the flashback passages, it already had been before he left for college. The book’s commentators appropriately draw comparisons to Salinger, saying that Clay is the modern Holden Caulfield. By the end of the film, there are no redeemable characters, no one worth Clay trying to save.

Somehow, by the hand of screenwriter Harley Peyton and director Marek Kanievska, these crucial social criticisms of the self-centered 1980s (or just privelege in general) mutated into a 1987 anti-drug movie starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader, among others. Clearly, the casting of some of the loosely connected “Brat Pack”–which should have included Jami Gertz and James Spader (who was much older than the others) among its named ranks–it is a star vehicle, and the intentions of which seem to transcend the material from which it is adapted.

McCarthy, as Clay, is summoned by former girlfriend, Blair, returns home for Christmas with the plea that he help save their friend, Julian (Downey, Jr.), burned by lofty ambition and suffering the peak of a cocaine addiction. While just as conceited and oblivious as the rest of the people Clay encounters in the novel, here, Blair invokes a kind of sympathy. She is Jami Gertz afterall and this is a Hollywood production, so there isn’t much to expect to be unresolved, and particularly, in any morally ambiguous conclusion (though interestingly, this is what happens in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which somewhat takes on the same subject of young privelege, but as Asian youth). The movie tries to impose on the characters an understanding of the rights and wrongs in which they exist, but what made the book so shocking was that its characters–at least outside of its nearly non-chalant observer, Clay–never seemed to possess any awareness of these things. There was never an alternative to force any of them to consider it, as there was in the movie. McCarthy’s version of Clay as the impatient hero, or Gertz, or even Julian’s parents who had nearly given up on their son but in the end, urge for their son’s reform in order to finally reunite. Never did such compassion exist in the book, and by the end, it’s relieving when Clay abandons the world he had only left for a short while, but even when he was there, felt so alien.

As an anti-drug movie, Less Than Zero (the film version) faces competition by two films that better approached the coke-addiction 1980s: Bright Lights, Big City (also a wonderful novel by Jay McInerny) and the 1988 Michael Keaton and Morgan Freeman drama, Clean & Sober. Given this, it is no surprise that Ellis would comment that there was no connection between the film and the book, despite the loose connection of character names and situations. He never goes as far as Paddy Chayefsky did to disavow himself of the film as was done with the early 1980s adaptation of Chayefksy’s novel, Altered States. Rather, Ellis was kinder with his reaction: “Due to all the liberties taken, Ellis refused to see the movie. In a recent interview with, Ellis stated that he has warmed up to the movie, and appreciates it visually as a snapshot of a particular time. Ellis claimed that there was no connection between the book and the movie, except for the title and the names of the characters” (from the Wiki article).

Ellis, in January 2008, suggested penning a sequel to Less Than Zero, to be titled Imperial Bedrooms, named for an Elvis Costello album. The movie is, as obvious from the post above, worth skipping. Pick up the novel instead for a quick read, but lasting effect.