The Runaways is exactly what a music biopic should be, mostly. The film’s electrifying first two thirds eschew those tired music-biopic clichés of the artist’s piousness, their tortured genius, the moment where they say the title of their most famous song in the middle of some conversation and so on. It’s drenched in sex and drug-taking – in fact, even more so than it is in music. Director Floria Sigismondi brings the tale of this real-life pop-punk band to the screen with the traits of a vapid, glossy promo video. And it works! A shame about the length then. Just when you think they’ve gotten away with the world’s first all-rise rock’n'roll tale, Sigismondi crowbars in the scenes of drug rehabilitation, remorse and … gasp … people writing music with new purpose in their life. Sigh. The Runaways runs for almost two hours, but as everyone knows, the best punk songs are over as quickly as they began. After all, it’s better to burn out then fade away.
The year is 1975. Kristen Stewart stars as Joan Jett, an angry young woman whose music teacher informs her that “girls don’t play electric guitars”, and then proceeds to forge a career with one seemingly out of spite. On the other side of L.A., 15-year-old Cherie Currie’s (Dakota Fanning) adoration of David Bowie is growing into a full-blown imitation. Outside a club one night, Jett confronts flamboyant producer Kym Fowley (an insane Michael Shannon) to help her develop an all-girl punk band. He sees immediate dollar signs, and combines her talents with that of drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton) and bass player Robin (Alia Shawkat – playing a fictional character).
The Bardot-esque Currie, a regular patron of the same club as Jett and Fowley, is recruited to be the provocative lead-singer. It’s not because she has the singing chops. It’s because a jailbaity front-woman is exactly what this project needs to generate some controversy. Dubbed ‘The Runaways’, the five teenage girls are let loose across America, and eventually Japan. They take advantage of their new freedom, dousing themselves in alcohol, consuming as many drugs as possible, and falling into bed with roadies, groupies and each other. But of course, it must all end with a fall. Such is the pitfalls of the road. Damn this fame monster!
It’s not that I have a problem with character development. Yes, fair enough, the rise and fall of the members of the self-destructive Runaways is fascinating in its own way. But haven’t we seen this story before? We know all the beats. Like all classic punk, the point is made not with the same four chords used in every song, but with the attitude and the swagger. For the first hour, The Runaways is all attitude and all swagger. By why the lazy last act shift? The real story here is about their groundbreaking, in-your-face sexuality. Or perhaps even the unbreakable bond between sex and rock music in general.
Stewart has long been the best thing about the Twilight series, and that franchises’ biggest crime is that it gives her nothing to do. Not so here. Finally free of Bella’s (hilariously) passive sexuality, she is able to unload (so to speak). Fanning is also fairly good as the pixie-esque Currie. They both embrace the childish nature of their characters, thus making their sexual exploration of one another – although brief – the film’s most fascinating angle. I mean, what are the implications of a culture where sexuality is celebrated above artistic worth? And how can two teen girls truly understand what they are doing with their bodies and their identities? And how should we feel about the fact that it is being rather saucily reconstructed in this biopic? The Runaways dances with these themes, in between – and occasionally during – the rollicking live performances. It goes further than Almost Famous, Taking Woodstock, and every other recent rock’n’roll film, only to wimp out in the final stretch and simply tie up the narrative loose ends.
The Runaways is indeed a lot of sexy, sexy fun. And thankfully Stewart and Fanning are good enough actresses to make the clichéd final act watchable. Of course, neither can match the manic, oddball intensity of Michael Shannon – desperately striving to be this generation’s Christopher Walken. It’s either a great performance or a very silly one. But I suppose if The Runaways is about anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter if the artist is good or bad. All that matters is that they have your undivided attention.