It doesn’t stray from the band movie formula: they meet each other, make music, start low, find moderate success, start touring, start vacuum-cleaning cocaine with their nostrils, start having ego-driven fights, etc. But THE RUNAWAYS makes good use of the formula, turning out to be an electric, wild ride of a film that still manages to maintain a surprising degree of factual accuracy, a concern that seems increasingly absent in biopics, thanks to “dramatic license” (an excuse that usually means “I’m not talented enough to make what actually happened work onscreen so let’s just make something up that I can write” or “the audience can’t take reality, so let’s water it down” or both).
The film starts in 1975, establishing the personalities of Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherrie Currie (Dakota Fanning); born to rock, Jett’s goal is to find someone who’ll give a chance to an all-girl rockband (a laughable concept, at the time). She finds insane record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who likes the idea. Cherie Currie is a David Bowie fan and seems to have an interest in singing, but her dysfunctional family and problematic life sidetrack her until Jett and Fowley find Currie and pick her as the lead singer of all-girl rockband The Runaways.
From then on it’s the aforementioned formula, but writer/director Floria Sigismondi surprised me with her confident grip on the story. With a particular talent for dialogue (every word out of Kim Fowley’s mouth is genius), Sigismondi and director of photography Benoît Debie adopt a vivid palette that screams Seventies, and editor Richard Chew knows when to cut intensely and when to let a composition linger onscreen for a while. Sigismondi also comes up with a clever visual rhyme — the first scene in the film starts with a close-up shot of a blood drop splashing on the ground (from Currie’s first period). Later there’s another close-up shot of a lock of Currie’s hair falling on a photo of David Bowie as she cuts her hair to look more like him. And later, completing Currie’s self-destructive arc, there’s a close-up shot of her photo as someone recklessly drops cigarette ashes on it.
After all, this movie is mainly about Cherie Currie. Joan Jett was in her element — she looked for Rock and found it, but Rock looked for Cherie Currie and found her. This important difference is stressed by Sigismondi repeatedly, and reinforced by the excellent performances of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, particularly the latter, who had the toughest job. Stewart is surprisingly convincing as the badass Jett, but Jett was a driven rocker, so her character doesn’t go through any major changes — Stewart only has to maintain her characterization consistent, and she does. Currie, on the other hand, wasn’t as sure of what she wanted to do with her life and the world of Rock and Success change her. Fanning portrays this brilliantly, as evidenced by the scene where she drunkenly staggers around a supermarket, unrecognizable from the first time we saw her. But it’s Michael Shannon who steals every scene he’s in, depicting Kim Fowley as a hyperkinetically hilarious madman (“Jail-fuckin’-bait! Jack-fuckin’-pot!”), but at the same time giving him an edge of cruelty and manipulation that ultimately hurts his relationship with The Runaways.
Fowley isn’t, however, the only source of humor in the film. There’s a particularly great scene in which Jett gives Currie a lesson while the latter is in the shower, and afterwards there’s an even better moment when Jett decides to take revenge on a male band that previously harassed her. THE RUNAWAYS switches tone efficiently, amping up the electricity to contagious levels during the concerts and calming down again to a crawling lethargy, as if it’s on drugs along with its stars — a merit of editor Richard Chew, whose fast-cutting during the concerts doesn’t render them confusing, but even more exciting. He, Sigismondi and Benoît Debie don’t hold back in portraying the radically different moods: there’s a ferocious red-filtered scene where Jett and Currie share smoke from a cigarette, later contrasted by a quiet, eerie shot of Jett floating on water, trying to inspire herself.
THE RUNAWAYS doesn’t hit all the marks. There’s the cliche montage that portrays the band’s growing success; the story largely ignores the other members of The Runaways (which makes it feel like Jett and Currie do the same); and the film makes it look like Jett came up with “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” when it’s actually a cover (the song is by The Arrows). The build-up to the ending is rushed, too, but the ending itself is one of the best scenes in the film, with a beautifully meaningful moment of silence between two characters.
Most of all, it’s a hugely enjoyable, well-acted, electric beast of a film that stays true to the essence of the band it’s depicting. It rocks.