Girls together outrageously: The Runaways ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 27, 2010)

Oh, they would walk the Strip at nights

And dream they saw their name in lights

On Desolation Boulevard

They’ll light the faded light

 –from “The Sixteens” by The Sweet

This may be tough to fathom now, but the idea of an all-female rock band, who actually played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, was still considered a “novelty” in the mid-70s.

Some inroads had been made from the late-1960s up to that time, from artists like Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Suzi Quatro and Heart’s Wilson sisters, as well as some lesser-known female rockers like Lydia Pense (Cold Blood), Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows), Inga Rumpf (Atlantis) and Janita Haan (Babe Ruth).

However, most of the aforementioned were lead singers, with male backup. I do recall a hard-rocking female quartet called Fanny, who put out a couple of decent albums in the early 70s. And then, there were The Shaggs… but that’s a whole other post, dear reader.

In 1975, a music industry hustler and self-proclaimed idol-maker named Kim Fowley, with producer credits on several early 60s Top 40 novelty hits like “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles and “Nut Rocker” by B. Bumble & the Stingers, had an epiphany. If he could assemble an all-female rock band with the ability to capture the appeal of The Beatles by way of the sexy tomboy ethos of glam-punk queen Suzi Quatro, he could conquer the charts and make a bazillion dollars.

So he scoured L.A.s Sunset Strip, searching for teenage girls who met his criteria: good looks, a “fuck you” attitude, and a hunger for fame at any price, who (preferably) owned their own musical equipment…and (most importantly) could be easily manipulated.

Depending on which camp is doing the talking in any tell-all book you may read or documentary you might watch, it was either due to, or in spite of, Fowley’s dubious manipulations that Cherie Currie (lead singer), Joan Jett (guitar and vocals), Sandy West (drums), Lita Ford (lead guitar) and bass player Jackie Fox (and her eventual replacement Vicki Blue) did make quite a name for themselves.

In the course of their 4-year career, they also high-kicked a breach in rock ’n’ roll’s glass ceiling with those platform boots, empowering a generation of young women to plug in and crank it to “11”.  Perfect fodder for a “behind the music” biopic? You bet your shag haircut.

Anyone who harbors fond remembrance for the halcyon days of Bowie, T. Rex and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco might get a little misty-eyed during the opening of Floria Sigismondi’s new film, The Runaways, during which she uncannily captures the look and the vibe of the Sunset Strip youth scene (circa 1975) all set to the strains of Nick Gilder’s “Roxy Roller”. It’s the best cinematic evocation of the glam-rock era that I have seen since Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine.

The film picks up the band’s story when Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon)  introduces Suzi Quatro superfan and aspiring rock star Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). After a series of hit-and-miss audition sessions in the dingy trailer that serves as the band’s rehearsal space, the now-familiar lineup eventually falls into place, including lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton).

Shannon chews major scenery as Fowley, especially as he puts the band through “boot camp”, which includes teaching them how to plow through performing while getting pelted by dog shit and verbal abuse. Cruel? Yes, but have you ever been to an “open mike” night?

The  first third of the film is engaging, capturing the energy and exuberance of rock ’n’ roll and raging hormones;  it bogs down a bit in backstage cliche. Still, there are strong performances that make this film worth seeing. Although she is the same age that Cherie Currie was when she joined the band, Fanning somehow “feels” too young to be cast as this character. Nonetheless, she deserves  credit for giving her bravest performance to date. The biggest surprise is the usually wooden Stewart’s surly and unpredictable performance as Joan Jett; she is  not so much “acting” as she is shape-shifting.

I couldn’t help noticing that there were a couple of glaring omissions in the “where are they now?” crawl that prefaces the end credits. Jett, Currie and West are mentioned, but updates on Lita Ford and Jackie Fox were conspicuously absent. Then, when I saw that Joan Jett was one of the film’s producers, I had an “aha!” moment. It did appear to me, more often than not, that the film was skewing in the direction of becoming “the Joan Jett story”. Then again, one could argue that she has had the most high profile post-Runaways career, with chart success as a solo artist and as co-founder of Blackheart Records.

Combined with Kristen Stewart’s current box-office legs and the release of Jett’s new album right before opening weekend, maybe this was just a shrewd marketing move by the producers. According to the Internet Movie Database, Lita Ford and Jackie Fox did not give their blessing to the production, so it’s also possible that the end credits snub is simply a “fuck you” to her old band mates. I love rock ’n’ roll.

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