Sep 11, 2010

Film Review: The Runaways

DIR: Floria Sigismondi
CAST: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon

I have to confess that, though in my twenties I’ve become obsessive about music, my knowledge of The Runaways extended only so far as knowing that there was a band with that name. From this starting point Floria Sigismondi’s biopic (which focuses on key members Cherie Currie (Fanning) and Joan Jett (Stewart)) does provide a basic chronology of the group’s short life span, but that’s really about all it does.

I’ve been waiting a long time for Sigismondi’s feature debut. I’ve long been a fan of her music videos and was really anticipating what she could bring to the big screen. Sadly, on the evidence of THE RUNAWAYS the answer is very little. Bar a couple of isolated shots and sequences (notably a beautiful image of Kristen Stewart floating underwater, and a red filtered montage of the band’s first brush with excess, there is very little here of Sigismondi’s intricate, individual, visual style. What we’re left with is a rather paint by numbers music biopic. It hits all the clich├ęs and, despite an authentic period look, has for the most part a cookie cutter visual style.

On the plus side though, Sigismondi does seem to have a way with actors. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Michael Shannon (as the girls exploitative manager Kim Fowley, who on meeting Currie and discovering she’s 15 says “Jail fucking bait. Jack fucking pot.”) and Dakota Fanning are great, both have proven themselves over and over to be interesting and versatile talents. That said; Fanning is a revelation here. The same age as Currie was when she joined the band, Fanning seems to live completely in her skin, and she’s to be complemented for, at just 15, being willing to take on a role that so thoroughly trashes her girl next door image. It is a little disconcerting to see how quickly she’s grown up, to see the little kid from MAN ON FIRE strutting around in a corset and stockings, swearing, snorting coke and making out with Kristen Stewart, but you only think about that as the credits roll, because Fanning really does become Currie.

The real shock is Kristen Stewart, who I have, in the past, dubbed variously Kristen ‘can’t act, blinking’ Stewart and Kristen ‘one expression’ Stewart. I’m not sure if it’s that she’s in character, or if her default perma-scowl setting simply suits the character of Joan Jett, but either way, Stewart’s pretty engaging here. She’s got that fuck you attitude that the punky music Jett wrote in the mid-70’s needs down pat and her real life friendship with Fanning pays off brilliantly in their chemistry on screen, it’s clear that there is a level of intimacy between them that shows through as the band gets to be more of a unit, and allows them to play the breakdown of that unit effectively.

The problem is that these two characters soak up so much of the limelight that THE RUNAWAYS never really feels like it is about the band. Stella Maeve as drummer Sandy West and Scout Taylor-Compton as guitarist Lita Ford each have about three lines, and otherwise blend into the background almost completely, and their parade of bassists is represented by a fictional character (played by Alia Shawkat) who may have one line, but I wouldn’t swear to that. The screenplay is the film’s big problem, too frequently it feels as if it is just checking off the expected scenes (at times it even nudges SPINAL TAP territory, and one big bust up after a Tokyo gig feels like a feminised take on a similar scene in ALMOST FAMOUS), there’s little narrative thrust, especially given that Currie’s apparently crippling drug addiction is addressed only lightly, and what real drive there is goes out of the film in its last reel, at which point it meanders a little before essentially stopping dead.

What does really make the film though is the music. Fanning and Stewart both do their own vocals, and the gig scenes, though few and far between, really find that special energy that makes you see what must have been so exciting about The Runaways in 1975 (this is especially true of a showstopping, complete, performance of Cherrybomb).

THE RUNAWAYS is by no means a bad film, it’s a little directorially anonymous, and the narrative and focus are all over the place, but it has real energy and a few excellent performances, not to mention some great music. If nothing else it makes me want to see the documentary EDGEPLAY: A FILM ABOUT THE RUNAWAYS.

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