Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
On March 17, 2010 I did a Q and A with director Floria Sigismondi, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning following the NBR screening of The Runaways. Stewart and Fanning were very young that day, thrilled to be back together for the publicity tour and making me feel like the professor keeping one eye on the adult while hoping to keep the kids out of trouble. It was fun and a bit unpredictable, like the movie itself.
The Runaways, based on the short eventful career of one of rock’s first all-girl bands, captures the time and place of Southern California, mid-to-late 1970’s, with energy and style. The Runaways were formed in 1975, breaking the mold of musical groups until that time, challenging the male-dominated rock scene. Put together by a musician-manager-provocateur named Kim Fowley (played with crazed bravado by Michael Shannon), the band was embodied by 15-year-old beauty Cherie Curie (Dakota Fanning) and slightly older leather-tough Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). It was a time when kids were all forming bands, but there were few if any role models for a young girl who wanted to rock–and no all-girl bands at all. The Runaways is based in part on the book “Neon Angel: the Cherie Currie Story” by Cherie Currie and is directed by Floria Sigismondi, an artist and photographer who has made memorable music videos with David Bowie, The White Stripes, Sheryl Crow, and others. Sigismondi has created an exceptional film that is part biography, part musical history, and best of all a gritty but fun coming-of age-story about a group of girls who want to do what others feel they are incapable of–be rock-and-roll stars.
Much like The Clash (Strummer/Jones), the Beatles (Lennon/McCartney), and The Rolling Stones (Jagger/Richards), The Runaways were fronted by a yin/yang pair of performers who complemented and inspired each other. Guitarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie (joined by the skilled lead guitar of Lita Ford) were entertaining and novel. Jett’s catchy songwriting and tough-girl persona, which made her an international star, was well honed and sharp–black leather, black shag, tough glare, the intensity of a panther about to attack. Cherie Currie was soft and glam, inspired by both Peggy Lee and David Bowie, towering over the audience in her impossibly high glitter-encrusted platform shoes. It was a time of musical experimentation, big dreams, and a belief that attitude and three great chords could make you a star.
Sigismondi portrays this world as a landscape without social rules amid a chaos of emotions and dreams. She doesn’t rely on shaky hand-held camera for a documentary feeling–this is a narrative, based loosely on a book, that captures the feeling of what it might have been like in a certain time and place. Kids chasing the elusive stardom of rock and roll with a twist–they are girls and nobody understands what they want except for their possibly insane manager who cheats them, mistreats them, and toughens them up for battle/performance. During rehearsal in a dingy constricted trailer he has local boys throw garbage, food, and even dog feces as the band rehearses–and it works. In one of their first public performances they dodge beer cans and even swat them back at the audience with their guitars.
Sigismondi gets realistic and well-tuned performances from Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire, War of the Worlds) and Kristen Stewart (Panic Room, Adventureland). At 16 and 20 respectively, both actresses are near the ages of the characters they play. Fanning finds a vulnerability and naiveté in Cherrie Currie that is endearing–her father is an alcoholic, her mother (played as a great walk-on by Tatum O’Neal) is emotionally absent. She is left looking up to Michael Shannon’s deranged father figure/manager Kim Fowley, who puts her through a skimpy bathing suit photo shoot in her own backyard and suggests publicly that suicide might be a way for her to leave the band. Fanning’s vulnerability is a perfect match for the rough-girl persona that Stewart reflects in her role as Joan Jett. From the first moment their eyes meet through the bathroom doorway of a dingy rock club, there is a sense of inevitable collision. Both actresses have acknowledged the guidance and friendship of their rock-and roll-counterparts–as executive producer (Jett) and book author (Currie), the musicians spent much time on set and in rehearsals, bonding with their young counterparts.
Sigismondi’s sense of visual style and story-telling gives The Runaways an authentic and experimental core that lifts it above the standard “biopic.” Shot on Super 16MM, then blown up to 35MM, the colors are rich and there is a grittiness to the image that matches the subject. The film makes unusual use of lighting (bathing Currie and Jett in red during a scene of intimacy) and isn’t shy about using slow motion and slurred audio to portray the psychic state of characters in a drugged-out haze. From the opening shot (a splatter of menstrual blood on a dry dirt parking lot), Sigismondi works creatively with cinematographer Benoit Debie (Day Night Day Night) and production designer Eugenio Caballero (Pan’s Labyrinth) to give the film a rich visual style and believable period look.