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In 1975, San Fernando Valley teen Joan Larkin reinvents herself as Joan Jett, a guitarist who wants to form an all-girl punk band. She pitches the idea to a sleazy manager, Kim Fowley, who pairs her with a drummer and then searches for a face: he finds Cherie Currie, at 15 the perfect jailbait image for his purpose; by luck, she can sing. Two others round out the band, "The Runaways." Fowley books a tour, signs them to Mercury Records, and packs them off to crowds in Japan. Seeds of conflict sprout early: Fowley puts Cherie front and center in the publicity, she's soon strung out on pills and vodka, and jealousies arise. Without adult supervision, where can Joan and Cherie end up? Written by
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Kim sent them over. They just showed up at my house with cameras - what was I supposed to say?
Well, you could say no. You could say "I'm a singer in a band, not Linda fucking Lovelace." Look at this! When did you do this? This is exactly what Kim wants. He's gonna be really happy! But this is all they're gonna say about us! Do you think anybody's gonna take us seriously?
Son of a bitch, it's just publicity. It helps everyone.
Well what were you thinking, publicize the ...
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I became a huge fan of Joan Jett with her first #1 single, I LOVE ROCK N ROLL, back in 1982. For years I remained a devoted follower of her albums, saw her in concert up close at small venues, and even got to meet her in person on a few occasions including getting to go backstage after a gig in 1985. It was only once she'd become popular that I discovered that she was originally in an all-girl rock band called The Runaways. Thus I found myself going back and collecting Runaways records too. So for me, this film was something to look forward to.
As Jett has confirmed in interviews, THE RUNAWAYS is mainly true, but there are some artistic liberties taken. The now-51, black-haired rock veteran stayed on the set so young Kristen Stewart (who portrays a teenaged Joan) could observe her movements and ticks, and also to make sure the story stayed somewhat in the right ballpark. The movie begins in 1975 and chronicles Joan's early years as a die-hard rock and roll chick with a rebellious nature who learns to play guitar and wants to form a hardcore, all-girl rock band ("No guys!" she insists). She stumbles upon the eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (a faithful rendering by Michael Shannon) who likes Jett's cool spunk and determination, but is more struck with the seedy possibilities of exploiting an orgasmic teenage girl band with guitars ("Jail-F'ing-Bait!" he exclaims with glee, pumping his fist). Together, Jett and Fowley seek out other band members. They comb the dark nightclubs where loud vintage '70s music by artists like David Bowie plays, for a blonde girl with just the right look to function as the lead singer for their group. It's there that they discover 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who's not far removed from her first period and who is desperate to become a singer. The Runaways are formed with Cherie up front possessing no strong rock chops, but getting pushed by Fowley and Jett to vocalize and gyrate like a slut having an orgasm. The girls practice enough to eventually get signed by Mercury Records and take off on a trip to Japan by 1977, which was the only place they struck it big, almost becoming as huge as The Beatles there. As many familiar rock and roll stories go, Currie becomes absorbed in the drug world and ultimately tensions mount within the group.
THE RUNAWAYS was partly based on Currie's autobiography, and in a way she is the focal point of the story. Dakota Fanning does a pretty decent job handling this type of slimy material, considering she was only 15 herself during filming. It's too bad though that her character is just not that interesting and, for me, young Dakota never quite captured the presence of the real Cherie onstage. I'm admittedly more biased toward Joan Jett, but it's Jett's driving persona which is the most compelling ingredient of the film. I was concerned Kristen Stewart might think that sporting a dyed black haircut would be enough to become Joan Jett, but she actually nailed the aggressive nuances of Jett perfectly. Joan is portrayed as the one member in the film who treats the band seriously, loves and breathes the experience, is committed and tireless. It's a small wonder she had such a successful and long-running solo career after the group disbanded. And Kristen's singing just blew me away -- both Stewart and Fanning sang for the movie -- and Stewart sounds exactly like Jett as she belts out part of one of Joan's original early songs, "I Love Playin With Fire". Unfortunately, the movie only gets to see one song rendered in its entirety: "Cherry Bomb" (sung by Dakota), which was considered the band's only "hit", and was co-written by Fowley and Jett, specifically for Cherie to learn and sing. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty good, with background songs by Bowie, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, and even the real Runaways themselves. As someone familiar with the original Runaways recordings, it was fun for me to pick them out in snippets here and there.
The problems I had which kept me from giving the film three stars were that this isn't really anything we haven't seen before, and it's something of a typical cookie cutter rock screenplay with no soul other than the determined presence of Jett. Really unfortunate was that the other three female band members were largely ignored. Not so much drummer Sandy West (who died of lung cancer in 2006); she gets a few lines and respectful moments. But lead guitarist Lita Ford (who had some fleeting success of her own in the '80s) was strategically left out of the action because in real life she and Joan Jett's camp have undergone some personal problems (Ford says Jett's longtime manager Kenny Laguna "disgustingly" offered to buy Ford's life story for a thousand bucks). Reportedly, Lita has threatened to sue if not portrayed accurately in the film. While she is largely disregarded, there are moments in the movie in which Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton of Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN) completely comes off as a whining bitch. Most outlandish is that real-life bass player Jackie Fox was completely written out and is now replaced by a totally fictitious character called "Robin" (Fox is a lawyer today, so one may assume the filmmakers weren't taking any chances). In 2004, one-time Runaway Vicki Blue made a documentary called EDGEPLAY which is worth seeking out for the real dirt about The Runaways. Joan Jett refused to participate in that project, but it's got recollections from Lita Ford, Jackie Fox, and Sandy West. It makes a good companion piece to this film, and doesn't pull punches. I had some fun with THE RUNAWAYS, but it's something of a watered down version of what actually happened and could have been a bit tougher and more dramatic. **1/2 out of ****
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