Picture this: it's 1975. The airwaves are dominated by the likes of David Bowie, The Eagles, and the Bee Gees. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a rock group — made up entirely of teenage girls — explodes onto the scene. In no time they've signed a record deal and are touring Japan, singing to thousands of fans who can't get enough. Sounds like standard film fodder, but what rocks about The Runaways is that it all actually happened.
The film is truly about the band's front-runners, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Joan is the mysterious, sexually ambiguous rhythm guitar player who just wants to be taken seriously as a rock musician. She approaches producer Kim Fowley (played to a T by Michael Shannon) outside of a club one night, and after an introduction to drummer Sandy West their girl group emerges. Across town, 16-year-old Cherie Currie is slowly starting to come into her own as a social outcast from a broken home. We get a glimpse of her star power as she writhes fearlessly on stage, embodying David Bowie for a high school talent show. She meets Joan and Kim in a club one night, and weeks later she's the blond bombshell, the lead singer, and the face of The Runaways.
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It's hard to believe that a story so chock-full of cliches could actually be based on history, but it's true: Joan Jett really did meet Fowler outside of a club, and he really did have a drummer already lined up. Their smash hit "Cherry Bomb" really was written on the spot for Cherie Currie when she came in for an audition. And, sadly, Currie really did spiral out of control and was all washed up by her 18th birthday.
Stewart holds her own in Joan Jett's shoes (and mullet, and leather), but it's Fanning who steals the show. Gone is the baby faced actress who was introduced to the world as Sean Penn's precocious four-year-old in I Am Sam, and in her place is a powerhouse performer. It's almost eerie watching Cherie come-of-age (and beyond) on the big screen knowing that Fanning has grown up in the spotlight herself. Fanning truly makes Cherie transform from an independent yet callow teenager into a pill-popping, corset-wearing rock diva. Fanning manages to push the limits of Cherie's attitude problems, but holds back before going over-the-top with the dramatics.
I was disappointed to see that Floria Sigismondi's direction often falls in line with the rock movie stereotypes. Once the girls hit the road, the band scenes felt like they could have come from any movie. We're hit with the classic dizzying camera angles set to music, supposedly exemplifying all that is rock and roll: a roller coaster ride representing the band's performances, use of mind-altering substances, and experimenting with sex. It's kind of a staple for a music biopic, but the "whirlwind rise to the top" scenes almost felt too fast-forwarded.
Still, it's a ride that's fun to be on. The girls live out a teenage fantasy of fame and rebellion (albeit a vision that ends too quickly), but watching as they scream and squirm and make trouble is the perfect fodder for a popcorn flick.
Photos courtesy of Apparition