Runaways, The (United States, 2010)

March 16, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Runaways, The Poster

The Runaways is a well-made but generic account of the rise and collapse of a musical group. In piecing together this partially fictionalized account of the mid-1970s girl rock band, The Runaways, writer/director Floria Sigismondi has erred on the side of sanitization, omitting or softening some of the more lurid details of the behind-the-scenes goings-on. The movie is at its strongest when focusing on the musical elements: the creation and improvisation of songs, the rehearsals, the concerts. It is also effective in illustrating the friendship/quasi-lesbian romance that blossoms between the two leads. Where it underperforms is in illustrating the home life of the central character, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and in finding a satisfying stopping point.

The Runaways form in 1975 when guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) separately approach manager/agent Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and announce their intention to start an all-girl rock band. He puts them together and, after they have practiced and written some material, he helps bring on board the rest of the group: guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor- Compton), bassist "Robin" (a fictional composite played by Alia Shawkat), and singer Cherie Currie, who is described as "the lovechild of Bridget Bardot and Iggy Pop." All the girls are under 19, with Currie being the youngest, just shy of 16. When Kim discovers her, he lets loose with a profanely joyful shout of "Jailbait!" The Runaways are not an overnight success; in fact, in North America, they remain largely below the radar. Overseas, especially in Japan, they are big. Her first taste of fame and its associated pressures lead Currie to seek solace in alcohol and drugs. Eventually, unable to cope, she quits the band.

Sigismondi's primary source material for The Runaways is Currie's autobiography, Neon Angel. (Although it's reasonable to expect that Jett, who gets an Executive Producer credit, provided input.) With this consideration, it's understandable that the movie slants in Currie's direction. She is the only character for which the screenplay attempts to develop a home life. We are introduced to her twin sister, Marie (Riley Keough), and are presented with scenes in which her father is depicted as falling-down drunk. Although Sigismondi's desire is to represent Currie as a fully-formed character, the non-band aspects of her life have a perfunctory, half-developed feel.

The movie's closing scenes are problematic. Once Currie has left The Runaways, the narrative flounders, seemingly uncertain how and where to end. Sigismondi's solution is to flash ahead several years to a point where Jett is a major star. This allows her to use some of Jett's best-known music ("I Love Rock 'n Roll," "Crimson and Clover") in The Runaways' waning moments. Yet the final connection between Currie and Jett is brief and unsatisfying.

The three leads provide convincing performances, with Dakota Fanning being the standout. Those who saw Fanning in Hounddog will not be astounded by the blatantly adult nature of her performance, but those who think of her as a darling child actor are in for a shock. Fanning's display of raw sexuality is at once impressive and a little disturbing; one would swear she's years ahead of the character she plays rather than the same age. It would not surprise me for this portrayal to generate some controversy about the appropriateness of some of what occurs on-screen.

Kirsten Stewart veers as far away from Twilight's Bella as one can imagine, making a pronounced statement that the actress does not want to be defined by her best-known role. Indeed, Stewart has shown a wellspring of talent over the years, little of which is evident in the vampire movies, but a portion of which is on display here. She and Fanning, who are also appearing opposite each other in the Twilight series, show solid chemistry, making the foundation of The Runaways the relationship between Jett and Currie.

Michael Shannon, whose role as John Givings in Revolutionary Road earned him an Oscar nomination, sinks his teeth into the part of Kim Fowley with a gusto that allows him to own his share of scenes. The over-the-top nature of the performance is intentional; there's no other way to effectively capture such a larger-than-life personality than by a little scenery-chewing. Shannon's screen time is limited so that the presence of his character doesn't become too overbearing.

The Runaways is very musical, which is precisely what one would expect from a movie steeped in rock history and lore and brought to the screen by a woman whose reputation is founded on making music videos. Although neither Fanning nor Stewart are vocally equal to their cinematic alter-egos, they do their own singing and the passion they put into belting out the lyrics allows us to forget that they aren't Currie and Jett. Fanning's "Cherry Bomb" doesn't match Currie's but it's nevertheless an effective rendition.

The film is not the definitive tale of an era and how it responded to the emergence of women rock 'n rollers, but it's an effective and engaging telling of a familiar story of the price and fleeting nature of fame. The weaknesses are more than compensated for by the performances, the art design (this feels like the '70s), and the soundtrack.

Runaways, The (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2010-03-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1