" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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There’s something disturbing and even a little unseemly about The Runaways, a hard-eyed look at the teen-girl band that launched Joan Jett’s career in the mid-1970s. Watching Kristen Stewart (as guitarist Jett) and Dakota Fanning (as lead singer Cherie Currie) makes you wonder whether the movie’s main characters aren’t awfully young to be on a collision course with fame and ruin.

Members of The Runaways fell into the usual traps during the band’s two-year existence. Sex and drugs became synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll. Currie inspired jealousy among her band mates when she began to grab too much of the limelight. As depicted in the movie, the group’s manager seemed to be part genius and part pig. I’m not sure why, but watching these kids go through their triumphs and catastrophes put me in mind of the title of Nicholas Von Hoffman’s seminal book about the ’60s, We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. Currie seemed to be the most self-destructive of the bunch.

It's all part of the scene
It’s all part of the scene

Directed by first-timer Floria Sigismondi, the movie presents The Runways as the first all-girl entry into the testosterone-fueled madness of hard rock. The Runaways specialized in what Currie, in a recent interview, called “teen-age jailbait rock.” And although those unfamiliar with the real story may have difficulty buying into the movie’s downward teen spiral, I’ve read that some of the toughest episodes — a rape and an abortion, for example — have been excised.

Sigismondi — who hails from the world of music videos — does a capable job of telling an old story with new faces. You know the drill: Rebellious girls form a band. Things begin to click. The girls — particularly Currie — hit the skids. We’re made to understand that the environment surrounding The Runaways — who toured in both the United States and Japan — was totally chaotic.

Best known for her work in the Twilight movies, Stewart captures the sullen seriousness of Jett, a teen-ager who opens the movie by buying a leather jacket that might as well have "Don’t mess with me" printed across the back. Put another way, Jett wasn’t the kind of musical kid likely to have shown up at band camp. If Fanning in any way shrank from the more difficult parts of her role, I didn’t notice — although you sense she may be working a little too hard. But here’s the deal on the movie’s seamy side: If there’s something distasteful about watching Fanning play an overtly sexualized teen-ager, maybe that’s how it was supposed to be. Currie was 15 when she joined The Runaways. Her breakthrough song was entitled “Cherry Bomb.” She was asked to flaunt a defiant brand of teen sexuality.

Fanning, who’s now 16, has some quieter scenes with Currie’s twin sister, nicely played by Riley Keough. But the spotlight falls on Currie and Jett, one wild, the other more disciplined — at least as far as music is concerned. At one point, the two young women share a kiss that goes beyond friendship. Just part of the scene, the movie seems to say.

The girls are helped in their rise by Kim Fowley, the promoter who teaches the band to regard rock ‘n’ roll as a “blood sport.” As played by the mesmerizing Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), Fowley is a wild-eyed creep who understands how to push The Runaways toward fame. He gives them outlandish advice, and encourages them to commercializes their adolescence.

Jett, for whom rock ‘n’ roll became a kind of religion, went on to have a career with a band called The Blackhearts. At the end of the picture, we’re told via title cards that Currie, now clean and sober, has become a chainsaw artist. Make your own jokes if you feel the need. The movie’s script — also by Sigismondi — is based on Currie’s book, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story.

Stewart and Fanning do their own singing, and their on-stage presence proves convincing. This may have had something to do with the fact that Jett was one of the movie’s producers. Rock ‘n’ roll stagecraft isn’t the only thing that seems authentic. From the grubby trailer in which the girls rehearse to the trashed-out hotel rooms of their various tours, the movie feels as if it has been steeped in genuine grunge.

The Runaways isn’t one of the great rock ‘n’ roll movies, but it offers plenty of grit, providing you don’t mind watching a group of 15 and 17-year-olds wallow in the kind of dissolution that at least should await the arrival one one’s 21st birthday. Or maybe I’m just being old fashioned.