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In 1984, the guitar-slinging rock goddess known as Joan Jett released an album (- That’s what they were called back then, kiddies.) called Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth.  Only her most devoted fans seized on the connection between that title and the events in Jett’s life a decade prior.  Onscreen, we meet Jett at the tender age of fifteen, a misfit in her location of sunny California and in her choice of instrument (- “Girls don’t play electric guitar,” an instructor tells her early on.), two factors that sewed the seeds that gave the world The Runaways, an American rock band made of teenage girls writing and performing their own songs.  The Runaways is a fictionalised account based on the remembrances of Jett and Runaways’ lead singer Cheri Currie about those heady years in the mid-1970’s.  All-American California blonde Currie is as much a square peg as the dark, brooding Jett, embracing the gender-bending world of British glam rock in the era of Helen Reddy and The Carpenters.  Cheri’s defiant performance of David Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul at the school talent show does little to enforce her popularity amongst her high school peers.  It is Joan’s meeting with eccentric rock personality Kim Fowley that sets the wheels in motion for the band to come together.  Fowley, a songwriter/producer sees the potential in assembling a group of attractive teenage girls and throwing them onto a stage, but not before putting them through crash courses in how to play their instruments and handle themselves in performance whether it was dodging beer bottles or seducing their audience by encouraging Cheri to be sexually aggressive behind the mic.  The formula works and soon the girls are piled into a car and made to tour while Fowley stays behind.  Fending for themselves with only a pliable roadie as supervision, the teenagers take full advantage of their newfound freedom to experiment with sex (- occasionally with each other) and drugs while going through the hard knocks of being a band of five young girls in a world totally dominated by men.  Their star rises in the East and The Runaways are off to tour Japan when pressures finally start to crack the band’s united front.  Drug abuse, petty jealousies and plain old immaturity finally doom the group, with Cherie plummeting further into free fall and Joan refusing to stay beaten by letting The Runways be her last word. 

Director Floria Sigismondi’s frequent use of slow motion and hazy, overexposed yellow-stained lighting and puts one more in the mind of a teenaged girl’s fever dream than a grainy biopic.  It is just the frame that is needed to capture this portrait of the short-lived band of adolescent females that burned out in glorious flames before they were seventeen.  Wisely choosing to focus more on what was going on in the hearts of Jett and Currie as two girls on the edge of adulthood that didn’t fit in anywhere; Sigismondi spends much camera time in close-ups of meaningful stares, because at fifteen years old, those stares are often the only expression a teenage girl ever displays.  Though tastefully handled, the license these kids had while on the road together; the abundance of drugs, alcohol and sex that would burn out most adult rock stars, is shocking even by today’s standards.  We’re shown that many of Cheri’s issues stemmed from a lack of any parental guidance and with Fowley as The Runaways’ Svengali and mentor, bad behaviour was not only encouraged but advised.  The Runaways captures how exploited the girls were sexually and in terms of their talent, never truly guiding their own rising star.  Sigismondi (- who also wrote the screenplay) draws a believable arc from rags to riches to rags, following Cheri’s path from relative innocent too embarrassed to sing Fowley’s suggestive lyrics to their future hit, Cherry Bomb, to spoiled baby rock star, to her pitiful decline after expelling herself from her adopted Runaways family right into a sanitarium after an overdose.  The director does an excellent job of showing us the seething frustration that guitarist Jett must’ve experienced knowing she had drive and talent and suddenly losing the band that was the baby she worked so hard to raise.

Great performances are what really elevate The Runaways.  Kristen Stewart is a standout as Joan Jett.  Mimicking perfectly Jett’s gangly, hunched posture and raccoon-eyed glare, Stewart is a dead ringer for the guitarist.  Never remotely impressed with her work in the Twilight films {Click for our reviews of Twilight and New Moon}, Stewart displays actual chops here, ranging from steely intensity in the face of The Runaways’ many obstacles (- including the girls’ inability to communicate with each other), to pulling ballsy, smart-alecky pranks on those fool enough to underestimate her, to pure, hell-bent rage when things irrevocably fall apart.  It’s an amazing portrayal of the deceptively tough, vulnerable teenager who will become Joan Jett and Stewart completely pulls it off.  Dakota Fanning gets tops in fearlessness just for putting on the corset, stockings and high heels that were so infamous as teenage Cherie Currie’s stage gear.  She should also get a medal of valor for running around in those hilariously high platforms and only falling once.  One of the most successful child stars ever, Fanning has chosen one heck of a role to announce with all clarity that the days of The Cat in the Hat and War of the Worlds are over.  I wonder if fans of both Stewart and Fanning will ever look at either the same way again after their bi-curious makeout session here.  As the quirky figure who led the dog meat and pony show, Michael Shannon captures the bizarre behaviour of ringleader Fowley, infusing him with the ickyness of a perverted uncle and giving him just the right nuance of menace as he simultaneously goads and harangues his “dogs” while attempting to control them.  Shannon’s whacked-out, mercurial Fowley provides most of the film’s humour while keeping the audience wondering just what his motivations were with The Runaways.  Though lost at times in the focus on the girls, Sigismondi’s script keeps Fowley from being a convenient, one-dimensional villain.

The Runaways is as raw and valid a coming-of-age story as any you’ll find about teenage girls made to grow up way too fast (- Original wild child Tatum O’Neal’s cameo as Cherie’s inattentive mom is ironic perfection.).  Granted, the events take place thirty-five years ago in a fishbowl of excess that most teenagers (- or adults) will never experience, director Sigismondi puts it all into a narrative that makes the audience relate to the pressures universal to any American adolescent.  The lives these girls lived was its own trip down the rabbit hole and through an intelligent, sensitive script and excellent performances The Runaways makes it possible for us to experience the joy and insanity of what it must’ve felt like to be in a band that changed rock history. 

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 19th, 2010

 

Click here for our interview and exclusive photos with stars Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon, director Michael Shannon and Runaways inspiration, Ms. Joan Jett.

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Apparition)

 

 

 

 

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