Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Runaways

Oh, joy.  A biopic.  Even better, a biopic about a rock band that I know almost nothing about.  Well, at least I shouldn't be mentally fact-checking the movie as I watch it.  If, like me, you were mostly unaware of The Runaways, they were an all-girl rock band that started in 1975; two of their members, Lita Ford and Joan Jett, went on to pretty huge success in the 80s.  My knowledge of the band comes exclusively from a punk box set I own, which includes their first single, "Cherry Bomb."  It's a dirty little rocker, but I was never interested enough to dig any deeper in their catalog.  Well, The Runaways wants to amend that oversight.  Let's see how they did.

Fifteen year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) has just officially become a woman (read: she's not pregnant), and she's never felt so alone.  Her father left to be a drunk, her mother is setting up a new life with her new fiance that may or may not include her kids, and Cherie's sister is a few years older than her, and that's a big gap in high school.  She finds solace in glam rock and fashions her appearance after David Bowie, because that's how you win friends in small towns.  Meanwhile, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is a glue-huffing wannabe rocker with no money or connections.  One night, Joan spots Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a pervert/sleazebag/record producer.  She starts to tell him that she wants to start a band, but he blows her off; she then says that she wants to start an all-girl band, and his interest is piqued.  He introduces her to a girl drummer, and they begin to slowly build a band, one female member at a time.  Kim knows that something is missing, though.  the band is missing a sexpot.  Specifically, an underage sexpot, because jailbait is awesome.  I guess.  So, he and Joan troll the teen clubs for a sexy blonde, find Cherie hanging out and offer her an audition.  Next thing you know, she's in the band and they're touring.  The first gigs are supporting, and they're terrible, but they stay on the road, land a record deal, and tour Japan.  All the while, the girls are delving deeper into alcohol, drugs and sex, and tensions keep rising as Cherie becomes the media's focus instead of the group.  They're all still underage, and something has to give.

If that plot sounded like a "...and then this happened, and it was followed by that...," I apologize.  There's not really a whole lot to work with here.  From the movie title, I assumed that this would be the story of the band.  It's not; the other three members of the group hardly get a line.  This movie is about Joan and Cherie.  But what about them?  Their friendship?  There are literally four scenes where they have intimate moments, and one of them is a hazy make-out scene without dialogue.  One scene is after a drug overdose, and one scene is an awkward phone conversation.  That means they had only one chummy moment in the whole movie.  Well, maybe this movie is about Cherie Currie.  The movie is loosely adapted from her autobiography.  But the last act of the movie focuses on Joan.  So is the movie about Joan Jett?  Again, not really; the movie begins before The Runaways began and climaxes with Cherie leaving the band, but Joan kept the band going for another two years before finding solo success in the early 80s.  So what is this movie about?  It's about the Runaways, and then it's got some Cherie Currie bits in it, and then it has some Joan Jett parts, too...and then this happened...and it was followed by that...

Okay, I get it.  The plot suffered from that frequent biopic Achilles Hell, the dramatic arc (and consistent plot focus).  Biopics are usually about the performances more than the story.  There are really only three characters in this movie (Cherie, Joan, and Kim), and they're pretty good, on the whole.  Dakota Fanning clearly enjoyed playing a sexed-up bad girl, even though her best scenes came when she was being timid or innocent.  Kristen Stewart spent most of the film looking absolutely drunkle, but she was really good in the few scenes where she and Fanning actually interacted.  And they looked eerily like their real-life counterparts.  There were many scenes where their costumes absolutely matched what the girls wore in their major concert or press events.  When they played on stage, they were also pretty good.  Michael Shannon was the best actor in the movie, though.  He said and did all the wrong things, but they were the most rock 'n' roll moments in the movie and absolutely made this watchable.

Floria Sigismondi wrote and directed The Runaways, her second feature film, although she is primarily a high-end music video director.  Not surprisingly, much of the time spent on exposition in this movie feels like a tedious waiting game for the next band performance.  The music scenes looked good, and the details to things like costumes were even better, but the story felt hollow.  To take advantage of the actresses she had, Sigismondi needed to create scenes that gave insight to their characters.  Instead, they just looked the way they were supposed to.

Sigismond's script is unfocused, to say the least.  This story does not adequately tell the tale of Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and the Runaways, much less any of them in particular.  The two main characters don't really get many opportunities to bond, and the rest of the band never feels like more than just extras.  The huge conflict that tore the band apart was apparently Cherie's sexy media persona; the band argued that her sexy magazine posing and spotlight hogging cheapened them all and ruined their credibility as a band.  Those are decent arguments in 70s rock, but they are made at a point in the film where the band is being worshiped by a crowd of exclusively female fans; without thinking much about it, I would say that the band had successfully avoided being just a T and A show.  The story also covers a surprising amount of time without mentioning it to the audience.  If I had to make guess as to how many years this movie spanned, I would say two, maybe three at the most.  After doing a little research on the band's history, I realized that this movie could very well cover anywhere from five to seven years.  That's a pretty significant difference, when the rush of fame is allegedly part of a movie's plot.

My favorite random thing about this movie had to be the use of four Joan Jett and the Blackhearts songs to close out the movie.  The band only plays four songs in the entire movie (there are snippets of about six or seven other Runaways songs in the soundtrack), and Joan Jett's solo stuff get almost equal attention?  What kind of point is this supposed to make about the Runaways?  Apparently, Joan Jett was better off without them.

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