A rich and surprisingly old-fashioned musical biopic, The Runaways has neither the bloat nor the blather of your average Hollywood treatment of stars on the rise. It’s pungent and quick on its feet, capturing the clubs, the shag-heavy interiors and the Farrahhaired vibe of mid-1970s Los Angeles in look and spirit.
Writer-director Floria Sigismondi has worked in photography, sculpture and music videos, and she gets behind the eyes and into the nervous systems of her subjects, without turning them into instruments of easy pathos. Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, two-fifths of The Runaways, take center stage here. One suspects Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, who have never been stronger or freer on screen, were able to bring all sorts of private, teen-idol Sturm und Drang to bear on these real-life teen idols.
Jett, Currie and their bandmates were brought together by music industry demi-player Kim Fowley, and one of the strengths of the picture is its ambiguity regarding this jailbait-obsessed puppetmaster. He’s played by Michael Shannon with a twitchy comic intensity. Everything about these lives is intense. The band’s story is a show-business fable of razor-thin lines, between rock stardom and teen exploitation, between the right amount of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll (Jett figured that one out) and too much (Currie didn’t, though she lived to tell about it all in the book Neon Angel).
Stewart’s Jett is paradoxically less mannered than some of her other screen portrayals, perhaps because Jett is such a righteous embodiment of teen fearlessness, as opposed to the heroine of the Twilight saga, a symbol of waiting and wanting.
“Girls don’t play electric guitars,” Jett’s music teacher informs her, chuckling. This is the sort of line every music biopic has, and it takes you right back to The Benny Goodman Story, when the oldschool Viennese instructor, upon hearing of Benny’s late-night gigs, exhorts, “No! Benny! Not zat ragtime!” Yet the corn doesn’t corrode The Runaways. The film invests real feeling in telling these intertwined stories. Currie was conceived by Fowley (and, implicitly, herself) as the trashy Valley version of Brigitte Bardot, while Fowley saw Jett’s appeal as more complicated — which is true, and it’s why The Runaways meant something beyond the packaging. The component parts of The Runaways are familiar — rehearsal scenes, backstage trysts, onstage triumphs — but it has an exceptional hangout factor. The characters and the performers simply are good company, even in extremis.
I don’t know what The Runaways’ real rehearsal trailer looked like, but the one we see here — a fabulously grimy model contributed, or found, by someone under the supervision of production designer Eugenio Caballero — is perfect. Caballero’s credits include Pan’s Labyrinth. The subject of The Runaways, really, is just another labyrinth, and the teenagers making their reckless way toward adulthood and selfhood are running, and playing, as fast as they can.