From the moment I arrived at Sundance, the movie that more or less everyone, including me, wanted to see most was The Runaways — and not just because it offered the chance to see whether Kristen Stewart, as Joan Jett, could leave her swoony Twilight mopiness behind her and play a rock & roll princess with down-and-dirty spunk. (Verdict: She can.) It’s also because the Runaways, a packaged group of choppy-haired teen-glam feline punkettes from L.A. who, in 1976, did for girls playing power chords what the Sex Pistols did for beer-spewing anarchy, may seem cooler now than they did then. In hindsight, they blazed quite a trail, but they didn’t have many good songs — and even their best one, “Cherry Bomb,” never quite broke free of their jailbait novelty-act image.
The most entertaining thing about the movie is that its writer-director, music-video veteran Floria Sigismondi (making her feature debut), has a sixth sense for how the Runaways were an image first and a rock & roll band second. Early on, we see Stewart’s black-shag-haired Joan in an L.A. boutique, where she has to coerce the sales woman into selling her a man’s studded biker jacket, which she wears as if born to it. Stewart’s no-frills, casually likable performance begins with Jett’s distinctive tough-girl saunter — which is to say, the actress knows just how to walk like a skinny dude. At the same time, we meet Cherie Currie (first name pronounced Sher-ee), who chops her platinum-blonde mane into a David Bowie shag, paints on the facial lightning streak from his Aladdin Sane cover, and lip-syncs to him at a high school talent show, which results in her being pelted with wads of paper.
These girls, it’s clear, have their underground fashion bona fides down. But it takes Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the noted record producer who becomes their psycho Svengali, to teach them how to rock out like boys. Fowley, who favors red-leather jackets and dog collars the size of tiaras, is a hyped-up hustler-manipulator who looks like a punk Frankenstein and shouts everything as if in mid-tantrum. He’s a ruthless creep, a kind of jadedly oversexed type-A head case, but he knows what sells. He finds Cherie in a nightclub, immediately placing her in the band as if he were casting a porno film. The fact that she’s only 15 is, to him, icing on the bad-girl cake.
There’s a fun scene set in the girls’ grungy rehearsal trailer, where Fowley, with a little help from Joan, makes up “Cherry Bomb” on the spot (“Hello, daddy! Hello, mom! I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!”), and he teaches Cherie how to sing it…nasty. Beneath her postures, she’s supposed to be a sweet, quiet girl who loves Peggy Lee and Don McLean, but she learns how to snarl and wiggle her crotch. Then Fowley teaches the girls to brace themselves for hecklers, and to fight back. At a concert in Japan, they’re in full flower, and you can feel the electric pull of what’s new about these girls co-opting the male-hormonal thrust of rock and making it their own.
When it gets away from the stage, however, and from the iconography of strutting she-devil-in-lingerie empowerment, The Runaways is just a watchable, rather so-so rock biopic, with the thinly imagined characters and desultory, one-thing-after-another episodic slackness of a TV movie. Granted, there’s a special challenge in bringing this story to life: The Runaways were really just little girls who fed themselves into a giant, buzz-saw machine of image and marketing, all ruled over, of course, by Fowley, the gonzo manager-producer from hell. So they’re really passive vessels in their own story. But The Runaways turns them passive in a different way: They’re made so likable and innocent and quaintly brash that they don’t fully have egos, erotic or otherwise. Stewart, in black eyeliner, nails Jett’s sinewy attitude, but Joan’s sexual proclivities are treated in a teasing, music-video way. I mean, why be so coy in a movie that’s supposed to be a rowdy celebration of a new kind of audacious feminine sexual power?
But then, Joan is really just the side player here. The Runaways is fashioned as Cherie Currie’s story — and the little bite-size conflicts provided for her, though they may be rooted in fact, aren’t fleshed out in a convincing way. She squabbles, tiresomely, with her twin sister (Danielle Riley Keough), and when Fowley forces her to do a solo cheesecake photo shoot for a magazine, Joan blows up at her for selling out the band’s image. Excuse me, but does Joan understand what the band is selling? Cherie falls into drug and alcohol addiction, but the script is so scattershot that Dakota Fanning’s performance ends up a little all over the place. She’s a Bowie freak, a soft-rock innocent, a dissolute addict, a nice girl in over her head — and with all that going on, she never even raises her voice. The Runaways shows you that the Runaways were authentic — if packaged — stars, and that they were victimized for being ahead of their time. As a band, the movie gives them their due, but as individuals it doesn’t make them interesting.
More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:
Blue Valentine: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams shine in soulful, wrenching marital drama
Sundance 2010 documentaries: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Smash His Camera; Restrepo
The Company Men: A juicy drama of downsized corporate executives
Howl and Nowhere Boy: The fascinating early days of Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon
Sundance 2010: Change you can believe in?
More from EW at Sundance 2010:
Sundance 2010: Exclusive star portraits from the EW photo studio
Ryan Reynolds’ Buried sold to Lionsgate