The queens of noise

April 29, 2010

The Runaways has more to offer than the typical cliché-ridden rock 'n' roll biopic, explains Jim Ramey.

THE RUNAWAYS, the first feature film by a promising new director, Floria Sigismondi, tells the story of what is considered to be the first all-female instrumental rock band.

With artistic license, the film provides a good depiction of the crippling stereotypes that women in the music industry and throughout society have to contend with and undermine before they are taken seriously at large.

What's also fascinating is the period that Sigismondi explores: the late 1970s. At a time when much of the social movements for Black, women and gay liberation were on the decline, and when a blowback against liberalism was on the horizon, starting an all-female rock group would have been an interesting project.

The atmosphere of a politically lackluster period coupled with an economic recession plays an important role in the film.

The movie introduces the two lead characters, Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, living in poverty and alienated from a society where their odds at success are long. Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, is on the verge of working with her sister at the fast-food chain, Pup 'n' Fries.

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie in The Runaways
Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie in The Runaways

Her mother has given in to the dominant sexist culture and plays the "perfect woman" for promising suitors. Her sister has taken her mother's lead and is happy to have an older, if incredibly creepy, boyfriend with a car.

Currie lip-syncs a tribute to Ziggy Stardust at her school's talent show, and we can see the sexual freedom that was being expressed at the time as we see the reaction to it--as her fellow students respond excitedly by either cheering or throwing food at her.

Jett is introduced in a vintage clothing shop where she lays down a bag full of loose change on the register counter and says, "I wanna look like him," pointing to a biker flirting with the store cashier. We see later that Jett is also a fan of David Bowie and the glam rock scene, and the androgyny of a leather jacket on a woman would instantly appeal to her.

Later on, the film has a fantastic scene where Jett tries to take guitar lessons and the teacher shows her "On Top of Old Smokey," insisting, "Girls don't play electric guitar." Jett then plugs in and plays a loud, amateurish and vulgar version of the same song to the teacher's inaudible protests.

Review: Movies

The Runaways, directed by Floria Sigismondi, starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Stella Maeve.

JETT IS the one character that most viewers will know. An indie rocker before there was such a thing as indie rock, Jett is famous for having her album I Love Rock 'n' Roll turned down by 23 major labels before she released it on her own label. It charted #2 on the Billboard 200.

Before that, however, she wanted to create an example for young women that rock wasn't just a man's world, and, as she's quoted as saying in the film, "The Runaways was my baby."

The importance of this example shouldn't be overlooked either. The solidarity that one gains in a band is something irreplaceable, especially at a time when life is just starting to get hard and sex is just starting to seem interesting.

Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band and founder of Artists United Against Apartheid delivered these ruminations when he inducted the Hollies into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

A band. The singular profound revelation of my life. The critically important notion that a group of individuals could be stronger together than apart, complementing and completing each other, communicating friendship, brother and sisterhood, and ultimately Community itself. Where would we be without that?

For young women told to hide their menstruation, find a good man, bear and raise his (his!) children and live vicariously through them, how powerful is the idea of an all-woman band fighting against all the odds stacks against them in a society so reliant upon their oppression?

But, as is true with all things, the band can't exist as an island isolated from the world at large. When Jett seeks the help of Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, to develop a band good enough to make it big, Fowley immediately sees dollar signs. He hooks Jett up with drummer Sandy West, played by Stella Maeve.

Fowley's idea is that rock and sex are synonymous. Once the band is formed, he coaches them, "It's not about women's liberation; it's about women's libido." He degrades Currie in particular when she first auditions, saying, "Jail fucking bait, jack fucking pot!"

These are the most uncomfortable scenes, and the film is ambiguous as to whether Fowley deserves credit for their success or credit for their breakup. But Shannon fairly presents a real character in rock history.

SINCE ITS inception, rock 'n' roll and sexuality have always gone hand in hand. The phrase rock 'n' roll is of course a none-too-veiled euphemism for sex, and as the new art form was getting its feet under its pelvic thrusts, it became not just about sex but about sexual liberation.

Later, as profit started rolling in to the large media outlets, sock hops and puppy love were put into the works to stifle controversy and creativity. But in the fecund early days before Elvis went into the Army, Little Richard went to church and Chuck Berry went to jail, the stultifying conservatism of the 1950s were given a lethal blow by a rebellious music that helped give expression to more libratory ideas whose time had come.

But managers like Fowley really did exist, and one is reminded of Phil Spector's double-edged historical role when presented with Fowley's character in The Runaways. Spector put women out front and gave them opportunities most managers and record executives denied them.

He was also labeled "a teenage millionaire," was famously abusive and controlling toward his acts and demanded all the credit for the pioneering sounds coming out of the records he produced. Spector and Fowley willingly crossed the line between sexual liberation and sexual perversion when they saw profit on the other side.

The film shows how different the experience was for the band, the actual artists in question. On their first tour, they were given a minimal expense account and opened for dirtbag bands that make vulgar remarks about them.

They give better than they get however, and wind up forming a tight bond as well as earning respect from music critics, one famously saying, "These girls can actually play." These scenes of the first tour are the best in the film and show a kind of freedom and arrogance that any teenager would revel in, especially one who get to travel and make some money. The sexual exploration that comes with charging hormones is acted out in a way that doesn't confuse sex with courtship and makes the bond in the band even stronger.

These positive reviews and a hugely successful Japanese tour were signs to Fowley that he should keep going further, and when he convinces Currie to pose for a sexually suggestive photo shoot, we see Fowley's vision for the Runaways and Jett's vision for the Runaways come to conflict.

Eventually, Currie is alienated from the rest of the band members for following Fowley's vision too closely and quits, leaving a hole in the band that wouldn't be filled, breaking up a year and half later.

At its weaker points, the film falls into the same rock movie clichés that dominate films like Ray, Walk the Line and numerous Elvis Presley biopics. If anyone hasn't heard the cliché sex drugs and rock 'n' roll, they may be intrigued by these lesser scenes in The Runaways, but for those of us who aren't congressional Republicans, another scene of drugged-out rock stars missing important appointments and acting pompously is thoroughly uninteresting.

The treatment of the rest of the band is also cursory at best. Some band members aren't even given lines, and since the story is based on Currie's autobiography, it seems likely that sometimes too much artistic license is allowed.

Overall though the movie is a refreshing break from the cliché-ridden genre probably because the band doesn't have a successful end except for that of Joan Jett. And Kristen Stewart's portrayal of the rock legend is very promising.

The differences between this character and Stewart's more famous role of Bella in the Twilight Saga isn't lost on the actor either. "You watch--by summertime, all the girls are going to have shaggy haircuts and play in bands," she said. One could imagine worse alternatives.

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