The year is 1975 and in a short while the face of Rock 'n Roll is going to be changed forever. This is the story of the all-girl band The Runaways. Supposedly the first female rock band ever. It's the story of a flame that burned bright and furiously, but went out as fast as it started. It's the story of Joan Jett, the chick who didn't want to be like all the other ditsy girls, and it's the story of Cherie Currie who stumbled on to fame and couldn't handle it. I don't need to bore you with the details of this sordid plot, if you can spell W-I-K-I, you can find out the rest for yourself.
So welcome to Girl Power for the '70s. Twilight (2008) star Kristen Stewart sheds her emo skin, and gets down and dirty in the role of Joan Jett. Dakota Fanning sticks her crotch in our face more than once, playing Cherie Currie, just to be sure we know she not the little girl we remember from War of the Worlds (2005) anymore. Meanwhile Michael Shannon does his best Eddie Izzard, as The Runaways' manager Kim Fowley. The other members of the band are barely in the frame.
When you tell the story of a band's rise to fame and fall from grace, assuming the events play out over more than a weekend, it will inevitably be reduced to a string of highlights. If done right, it can be poetry, a breezy ride that covers many years in the span of a few minutes, where we, the viewers, can fill in the blanks ourselves. If done wrong, you'll get the constant sense that you're missing some subtotals - that something important happened during the parts we skipped over. That's the feeling I get when watching The Runaways. A few examples: Joan Jett meets the manager. He introduces her to a drummer. Later they meet Cheerie. And the next thing we see is a band of five girls... So where did the other girls come from, again? Then they play for about 12 people in a living room, and the next thing we know they're on the road doing their first tour. Say what now?! And when they go up on the stage they sing these great, angry songs, perfect for the band, but when were these written, and who wrote them? Plus, let's not forget the affair between Joan and Cheerie! They share a kiss, we get the sense that they jump into bed together, but that part of the story is never mentioned again. Surely this had some influence on their relationship?
Think of a film like Goodfellas (1990). As we skip through the years, through the good times and the bad, there's always a clear voice that guides us, and I'm not just talking about Ray Liotta's voice-over. We know where we are at all times and we know why. Almost Famous (2000) is another example of a film that mostly consists of highlights, or scattered recollections if you will, but it still manages to create a beautiful flow. The Runaways does not.
I feel like the characters are miles away from me. It's so hard to sense anything through the thick haze of distorted rock songs blasting away on the soundtrack, too loud to be enjoyed or ignored. It's hard to see through the veil of angry cries, the booze, the heavy makeup and the unruly hair. I can't get eye contact with these people, I can't get a lock on who they are. I know the basics - they want to play in a band, they don't want to be ordinary housewives - but beyond that I learn nothing about them.
I love Kristen Stewart, and she certainly looks the part. She sings and dresses like the real Joan Jett, but the film invites more questions than it answers. Why is she so angry? What does she want? What is she thinking? I know nothing about Jett after watching this film. To be fair this is actually Cherie Currie's story, more than it's the of story The Runaways. We learn a few more details about her, but the film is dangerously close to reducing her to a rock-cliché of booze, pills, and sex. First she's insecure, then she becomes a rock god, then she becomes a prima donna. Welcome to every single "rise to fame"-story ever written. As a landscape of sound and images The Runaways works perfectly well, but try to go any deeper and you'll be met with a wall of rock 'n roll noise.
The Runways (the band) went down in flames, as all such passionate ventures must in the end, but when the film is over, I'm not any closer to finding out why they were important and why it all went wrong. If the first thing I do after I've seen a biopic, is go online, to find out what really happened, then you've done something wrong. This film captures the mood of the time when The Runaways became a big hit, but it fails to explore the meaning behind their success.