The Runaways Rocks!
By Sumaya Samarasinghe
Who has not stomped their feet and done some head banging to the sounds of Joan Jett screaming I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll ?
But few of us know that she was once the leader of an all teenage girl rock band called The Runaways who were barely 16 years old when they came out with their first album. Based on the group’s lead singer Cherie Currie’s book, Neon Angel: A Memoir Of A Runaway, the movie The Runaways depicts the band’s meteoritic rise to fame between 1975 -1977 under the often negative guidance of their Svengali type of manager Kim Fowley who was approached by Joan Jett outside a nightclub. Jett is a fantastic and completely unrecognisable Kirsten Stewart who seems at ease and comfortable in her role which is a welcome change from her semi lethargic persona in the Twilight series.
In a key sequence of the film, the then 16 year old Joan sells Fowley her idea to have an all-girl rock band and asks Fowley, played in a creepy and weirdly caring type of manner by a demented looking Michael Shannon, to manage their future careers and guide them towards the path of success. An all-girl band had never been done before and was a risky gamble but Joan Jett and her future band members had the attitude and the hunger to make it happen.
Though absolutely nothing is revealed of Jett’s private life ( no clues are given if she has parents or how she lives) it becomes clear that music and the band are her family and consume her whole life. She is the one who has the maturity, drive and commitment to make it work while the other girls are dealing with issues, very much linked to what teenagers their age would go through.
Kim suggests building the band’s image with a “hot, blonde, vocal lead”, and that is when he and Joan find Cherie, a 15 year old Lolitaesque lost child, a trailer park beauty who lives with her twin sister, her alcoholic father and a mother who has abandoned them to go and live in Indonesia with her new boyfriend.
Dakota Fanning, who plays Cherie Currie, gives a heart wrenching portrayal of a young girl who just cannot cope with her newfound fame. She auditions for the band with a song by Peggy Lee and is quickly thrown out of the trailer by Fowley who, deep inside, knows that she has no charisma to make it as the vocal lead. He and Jett write her a song for her audition and Cherry Bomb becomes their first single to come out in US while consolidating a place in the band for Currie.
Some of the best scenes of the film are the practice and concert scenes. One of the harshest and funniest moments is when Fowley teaches the girls how to dodge bottles; all this while being squeezed in the tiny trailer which they use as a practice room. The sequence, which takes place in Japan, when the band has to get away from a herd of crazed fans is beautifully filmed and one cannot help but wonder how very young girls who have never experienced such hysteria are able to deal with the situation.
But nothing actually can prepare the teenagers to cope with the pressures of success. Cherie especially, is at first thrilled to be in the band and as the front woman, she begins to get more publicity than the other band members which angers the guitarist in particular. Drugs and sex come into the equation and Cherie quickly realises that she must quit the band if she wants to survive. One scene where Fanning’s character is so high on drugs that she can barely push a shopping cart though the empty parking lot is particularly heartbreaking. Joan, with whom Cherie is shown to have become involved, does not accept Cherie’s decision, but chooses to pursue a career in music which continued with a fair amount of success until the 1980s.
The Runaways is not an easy film to watch. For those who think that it is a light movie with just some pretty actresses, don’t be misled. There is sex, a lot of drugs and a lesson, which is to never allow children lead the lives of adults. So if you are into strong female performances and have the heart of a rocker, watch the film. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, who is also a photographer and a music video director, she has kept her style of hand held, jittery, nervous visuals, giving the film a sense of authenticity which often lacks in today’s productions.