April 1, 2010

The Girls Are Back in Town

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In 1975, The Runaways burst onto the music scene with their all girl line-up and no-nonsense attitude. Developed by record producer Kim Fowley and headed by guitarist Joan Jett, they were poised to take over the charts, but a series of setbacks prevented them from ever getting off the ground. Those familiar with the music industry know that Jett would go onto the front her own band, The Blackhearts, while the remaining members of The Runaways went in other directions.

Lead singer Cherie Currie released two solo albums and did some acting; but, the drug problem she developed while she was with The Runaways continued to plague her until she dropped out of the spotlight. Recently, Currie co-authored a novel with non-fiction writer Tony O’Neill detailing the time she spent with The Runaways, entitled Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. This novel was then used, by music video director Floria Sigismondi as the source material for a Runaways film.

Watching The Runaways it’s incredibly clear that the story has been framed so as to highlight Currie and Jett’s stories while relegating the rest of the band to the background. Part of this can be attributed to the star power of Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, who play Currie and Jett, respectively. The rest is probably due to Currie’s novel serving as the foundation and Jett serving as an executive producer on the film. It’s incredibly difficult to invest yourself in the lives of these characters when you know so little about them. As Lita Ford, The Runaway’s tough willed guitarist, Scout Taylor-Compton is reduced to nothing more than a whiny teenager who’s jealous of her band mates. Drummer Sandy West fares slightly better, as she is accurately portrayed as a co-founder of the band, but actress Stella Maeve isn’t given much to work with after that. Alia Shawkat rounds out the band presented in the film playing a fictitious amalgam of the band’s many bassists, who has barely any speaking lines.

This leaves Fanning, Stewart and Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon, as Fowley, to carry the load. Fortunately, all three actors were surprisingly well cast for their roles. Known predominantly for her wooden performances in the Twilight films, Stewart is a much better actress than she’s often given credit for. At just 19, the young starlet has been nominated for four Young Artist Awards and she recently won the BAFTA Rising Star Award. Here she able to display why; embodying the poorly developed Jett character, Stewart elevates Sigismondi’s material. So does Shannon; as Kim Fowley he is careful to show hints on insanity and touches of brilliance. Rather than simply playing Fowley as a wholly over the top man, Shannon is able capture the svengali he truly was. However, it’s Fanning who is most impressive. Shedding what remained of her “child actor” label, Fanning meticulously traces Currie’s loss of innocence. She personifies the jail bait branding that music critics gave to Currie back in the 1960s.

If anything, Sigismondi tried too hard to keep the film tasteful at the expense of a fully fleshed out story. Her script continuously reminds the audience that these girls were fetish objects for the masses but it doesn’t show us that. One of the film’s major sex scenes feels too soft contextually in a movie that’s all about rebellion and anarchy, while another has a cliché fade-to-black sequence. The end result is a number of scenes that leave the viewer feeling awkward rather than satisfied. Her years as a music video director made Sigismondi well qualified to shoot the film’s numerous musical sequences and her love of the band does shine through at points. Unfortunately, she and cinematographer Benoît Debie went a overboard with their attempts to show the grit. Several scenes are so dark that their focus is obscured.

Overall, the film is typical biopic with some flair. Despite its many plot holes, which do get progressively worse towards the end, The Runaways is a fun film evocative of the 1970s.

2.5 Towers

Original Author: Wesley Ambrecht