3 stars, (R)
Drugs are bad. They make films about musicians predictable. The Runaways is a rise-and-fall flick about the '70s band famed for being the "first all-girl rock group to really rock." The movie is decadent and fun until the drug use starts, when it turns into just another tabloid biography. But what the hell, it's lurid and absurd enough that even when the wind goes out of its sails, it glides along fairly well.
The Runaways were a borderline hot item in the '70s. To some, they were rock and roll pioneers. To others, they were an embarrassing "jail-bait" group assembled for exploitation. To most, they're Joan Jett and Lita Ford's old band. What I remember is that they got lots of ink but very little airplay in America outside their hometown. Their manager, the calculatedly outrageous Kim Fowley, received as much, if not more, press coverage than the girls.
While the movie is titled The Runaways, it's really only about two of them, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). All poor Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) gets to do is look pissed off. She doesn't even receive a "Whatever happened to..." paragraph at the end of the film. The other Runaways get even less face time than Ford. Funny that a project executive produced by Joan Jett and based on Cherie Currie's 1989 autobiography would work out that way.
According to the movie, fledgling guitarist and teenage rebel Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) are taken under the wing of the notorious impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, having a wonderful time with the juicy role). Dollar signs appear in his eyes at the prospect of a jail-bait hard rock group and he becomes their manager/puppeteer/overlord/father figure. He recruits Currie because she looks right, then starts molding the band through drill-Sargent rehearsals in a beat-up trailer. "I'm going to teach you to use your cocks!" he screams at them. Later he stages Heckler Classes by hiring a few boys to throw stuff at the band.
What's really interesting is the way Joan Jett and Cherie Currie are presented. After an opening scene where Currie sort-of lip-syncs a David Bowie tune at a talent contest at school, we get to know her primarily as a wounded bird sporting rock and roll attitude. As played by Dakota Fanning, she's wispy, but determined - an intriguing, but frustrating combination. There's a brief scene in a phone booth where you can see Fanning acting. Otherwise, she does a good job and appears to be making the transition from child-star to grown-up thespian quite nicely. Jett, meanwhile, assumes a supporting player position to Currie. Kristen Stewart is fine, although the role doesn't require much of her.
By the way, the curious little DJ played by Keir O'Donnell late in the movie is Rodney Bingenheimer, another LA rock legend who still has a program on KROQ and yes, his presentation style really is that peculiar.
So what does The Runaways give us? One scenery-chewing figure, two underdeveloped characters and lots of background figures. The film never delves into the ethics involved in the marketing of the group. But it does offer an enjoyably sensationalist portrait of a certain era in rock music. I dug it, until the drugs arrived and made the story terminally obvious. Then I dug it less.