If you’ve seen it, it’ll be hard not to compare The Runaways with Victory Tischler-Blue’s devastating 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways. Try not to, though. If you haven’t seen it, watch Edgeplay for Lita Ford’s dynamic tough-girl reminiscences, Jackie Fox’s skillful context-setting, and to have your heart torn out by Sandy West.
The Runaways, however, is the liturgy of Cherie Currie and of Joan Jett, the specter who haunts Tischler-Blue’s documentary by not being interviewed. Try to forget all the historical liberties taken by Floria Sigismondi’s first feature-length film: Between the interviews in Edgeplay, the narrative retelling of The Runaways, and various finger-pointing books and blogs written by ex-band members, deciphering the band’s and the womens’ “actual” history is like Rashômon — backwards and in platform heels.
Sigismondi has composed an artfully condensed cinematic snapshot that mercifully avoids most of the pitfalls of the celebrity biopic. Most biopics take on too long a timespan, herding the viewer through a predictable rote exercise of biographical data, hitting the plot points of rise, fall, and re-rise; they’re the CliffsNotes of a person, a summarized life. But The Runaways maintains a tight timeline and an intimacy with its main characters, and in doing so constructs an immersive experience of ’70s rock ’n’ roll, of rebellious girls tearing shit up and being torn up, too. The Runaways rejects the impulse to explain everything — or even make everything persuasive; the scenes set supposedly in Japan are pretty artificial — instead opting for a series of intense scenes that create their own trajectory.
The acting, duh, is key. Kristen Stewart got Joan Jett down — not only the hunched posture, heavy-lidded gaze, and laconic, tomboyish swagger, but Jett’s palpable desperation to rock the world in every way she can think of. Where Stewart’s doe-eyed yearning in the Twilight series came across as mopey and opaque, here it ups the emotional stakes; she’s got real stuff to long for, and she’s both determined and restless as hell. Forget the sparkly vampires, she’s after freedom, transcendence, escape, and kicking musical ass against all odds. Her bottomless ambition to create herself and the Runaways and her complex relationship with Cherie Currie intertwine throughout the movie without getting too metaphorical. Stewart’s got more to her than I suspected, and her onscreen chemistry with Fanning is nothing short of romantic in the best possible way. Had I been ignorant of the Twilight saga, I would herald Stewart as a performer of compelling power; having seen her emerge from that stilted teen telenovela victim into Joan Fucking Jett elevates her into a force to be reckoned with.
I expected Fanning to be good; she’s managed to inject old-soul complexity into kid parts since she was what, 5? She doesn’t disappoint, here, skillfully enacting a dilemma. Currie plays up to male sexuality (and her Daddy issues) with her onstage lingerie and jailbait photo shoots, but when she explores her own intimate sexuality, it’s stunningly believable, and brave. The way Sigismondi shoots the sexual encounters between Fanning and Stewart avoids graphic acts and floats into sensation, excitement, and the glowing trance of infatuation — despite Jett’s self-assuredness and Currie’s heedless confusion, it’s a mutual seduction.
Also excellent is Michael Shannon, mesmerizingly scary as Kim Fowley, the girls’ manager, producer, and tormentor. He manages to inject pathos and real conviction into a shudder-worthy character. At one point he thunders, “It’s not women’s lib, it’s women’s libido,” which is a clever line that demonstrates Fowley’s crucial lack of understanding: For these girls, libido is liberation.
Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, btw) is both beautiful and sad as the twin Currie sister left behind. And the production itself is a marvel — the costume design, makeup, and texture of the production are nothing short of lust-inducing. Keir O’Donnell’s recreation of the halting, oddly polite verbiage of fabled DJ and club owner Rodney Bingenheimer is humorous and winsome, too.
As a document of cultural history, The Runaways is more along the fantasy lines of Inglourious Basterds than, say, the journalistic mien of Band of Brothers. While justifiably frustrating to some, I now can’t get “Cherry Bomb” out of my head. •