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.

Rock n’ Roll in the Rising Sun: Tokyo Pop


Tokyo Pop is probably an unrecognized film title to all but a handful of people, most of whom are likely rabid 80s film fans. And without the transition to the more readily accessible DVD, it remains not a great film (pacing tends to be a problem), but still an overlooked, low-budget gem in the grand universe of obscure cult films.

Centering on young and naive aspiring American and Japanese musicians, Tokyo Pop contrasts the mid-80s new wave, punk and rock influences of urban Japan with the backdrop of idyllic tradition and historical roots; an obvious criticism of commercial globalization and the “Americanization” of a once-distinct Eastern identity. Rock, pop, punk and new wave (check out an early performance of “Rauken Rauken” by Japanese goof-girl rockers, Papaya Paranoia) – it’s all image and personality. Like the old photos of youth in 1980s post-Communist countries: a carefully manufactured young “cool”.

There are essentially two leading characters who, by fate (and the script!), cross paths. Carrie Hamilton, the late daughter of comedienne Carol Burnette (she may be more recognized as one of the instigating rivals in Shag), shares the lead as Wendy Reed, a struggling singer with no hope for security and mobility in the New York City dives scene. Inspired by a postcard of a friend who boasts of success in the business following a move to Tokyo, Wendy packs up her sparing belongs and decides to join her friend. Except things don’t go as plan. Stunned not so much by culture shock, but news of her friend having already moved someplace else, she sticks it out. And, on the advice of fellow nomadic gaijins (the romanticized gringo: Americans) she,  takes up residency in a group house plastered with Disney memorabilia and, in the closest thing to paying singer she could quickly find, entertains drunken entourages of Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar with half-hearted renditions of corny American folk songs.

Stranded in the city one night, Wendy meets Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, the vocalist for the Red Warriors who is probably better recognized as the director of the whiskey commercial in Lost in Translation), another young, aspiring rock musician. Obsessed with American and British pop culture, especially the musical legends like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, this is basically the bulk of the limited English he can communicate to Wendy. His family is the same – in one scene, his grandfather, in traditional garb, scowls at his daughter who is attempting to follow the jazzercise routines she’s watching on television as they sit around the dinner table with Hiro and his sister. A big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken crowds the table and Hiro’s mother is ironically bewildered that her son isn’t interested in more “Japanese” things. Even Hiro’s father, a divorcee (taboo no more!) specializes in the 80s novelty of synthetic food sculptures.

Hiro and Wendy’s first encounter is eventually miffed by a misunderstanding over the sharing of a hotel room, but eventually the two hit it off, much to the delight of Hiro’s band, a rock quartet, who want the newfound blond gaijin to be in their band, certain that this is just the gimmick they need to get recognized by the country’s most famous producer, since sneaking trying to sneak him demo tapes hasn’t worked. Reluctant at first, Wendy seems unable to find any other band to meaningfully support a singing career (X of Japan briefly appear in their massive coifs, and delegate Wendy, the new band mate for about a second, the back up singer’s tambourine).

Hiro’s band is basically a cover band, churning out live performances of corny American pop songs like Three Dog Night’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Amazingly, they do achieve major public recognition, but only through some trivial event – a photographer happened to capture a backstage spat between Wendy and someone else. Suddenly, the cover band is topping the country’s charts. And yet, both Wendy and Hiro, at the helm of  a thriving gimmick band, aren’t entirely happy with the expected definition of “success” (money and fame). In private, Hiro has performed for Wendy the songs he has written, which he sings in Japanese. Completely absent of the Western manufacture, the songs are sincere. Wendy, willing to walk away in order to get Hiro and his bandmates to abandon the gimmick, encourages Hiro to perform these songs for his audiences. In other words: art for the sake of art.

Released in 1988 and yet to be re-released, the film was co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, though her 1992 directorial effort is more widely known: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tokyo Pop was a lot like the 1987 culture-clash dramedy, Living on Tokyo Time. Unfortuantely, there’s little net-recorded history on the movie, other than (surprisingly) a 2007 New York Times Review.