Monday, March 22, 2010

The Runaways

Floria Sigismondi | 2010 | 109 min | US

A rough, all-girl rock group fronted by a blonde lolita. Money in the bank, right? The band's life was short, but a year after forming they were headlining shows with Cheap Trick and Van Halen as opening acts. A year after that they were on a world tour and recording a television special in Japan. They released three studio albums before breaking up in early 1979. The Runaways were a cultural milestone, not that you would know it from watching The Runaways (aside from its few "big in Japan" moments).

The Runaways focuses primarily on the relationship between guitarist/ singer Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie from their first meeting until Currie eventually drops out of music when drugs take too great a toll. Currie's family life also has some screen time, and Jett is shown kissing different girls. I was surprised that Dakota Fanning not only turns in the first decent performance of her young career, but she does a terrific job as Cherie Currie. Kristen Stewart is also good, and slightly more involved as Joan Jett than her usual scowl-acting allows. Unfortunately, the talented Alia Shawkat plays "Robin," the composite bassist, but is left completely line-less due to legal threats.

The Runaways best functions as a Music Delivery System and Nostalgia Generator, which it performs to perfection. When in clubs, jam spaces, and on stage, the movie is thoroughly captivating. I say that with the exception of ham-fisted scenes of the band "jamming" out a hit tune in a couple minutes of riffs and lyrical free styling that turns out magically. I always find such scenes painful to watch. They are the laziest of shortcuts and you don't have to have a gold record to feel how false they ring.

Floria Sigismondi has shown that she has an inspired flare for visual storytelling. We see moments of it in The Runaways, but Sigismondi seems bored when the story is about something other than drug use or performance. The result is a collection of memorable music videos strung together by vague scenes of a band imploding. So much energy is expended presenting the band's drug use it comes at the expense of portraying the recording of their albums, which gets one short scene, or the reception of those albums. Since the movie covers such a small window of time it is ridiculous for it to glaze over huge events in their career. That disinterest extends to the character summaries at the end of the film. While Currie, Jett, and producer Kim Fowley are all given the "where are they now" treatment, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and the myriad bassists are ignored. That is silly and inexcusable.

All this complaining may create the impression that I hated The Runaways. I did not. I enjoyed watching it, though it left much to be desired even while I was watching it. At its essence it is little more than an improved take on Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. That may or may not be enough for you. The Runaways is good, but I wanted more than good.

However, if the music isn't really what you're after anyway, the superior youth debauchery vehicle starring the real Cherie Currie is Adrian Lyne's Foxes. I cannot recommend that movie enough.

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