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The Runaways

Cherry Bombs: The Runaways

To call the Runaways an all-girl band is not belittling. None of them was within shouting distance of 18 when they got started, and the band was history before any of them were 20. They never really hit it big during their four-year existence in the late 1970s, though like the Velvet Underground they were more influential in retrospect than they ever were as a performing unit. Playing an Americanized version of the glitter rock sound that was big in England at the time (the Sweet, Gary Glitter, Suzy Quatro), they were a link to punk’s rawness and simplicity, more than the manufactured novelty act many saw them as.

Executive-produced by Joan Jett, who started her career as the band’s rhythm guitarist, The Runaways is a serviceable movie that captures some of the sleazy ambiance of the time, but too often resembles one of those watered-down music biopics that VH1 used to crank out.

In all fairness, it probably isn’t possible to tell an authoritative story of the band. Do a little reading about them and you will quickly realize that the stories the different members tell are impossible to reconcile with each other. Reunion concert? Never gonna happen.

The source for this script was lead singer Cherie Currie’s biography Neon Angel, which has been largely discredited by bassist Jackie Fox. Fox isn’t in the movie, replaced by a composite character who I don’t recall having a single line of dialogue. (Kind of a waste when you’ve hired Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, who looks a bit like Fox, for the role.) Guitarist Lita Ford doesn’t fare much better.

Instead, what we get is The Cherie Currie Story, featuring Joan Jett. Which is enough for the box office, given that they are played by Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, respectively. It follows the general contours of the band’s history: assembled by producer Kim Fowley, thrown into the concert circuit with little preparation, developing their sexuality on a public stage and in cheap motel rooms, drugs, dissolution, and demise.

Alternately celebratory and cautionary in tone, this film by music video director Floria Sigismondi is more successful at recreating the atmosphere of the era than in telling a story. Even if you don’t know all the issues the script was required to back away from, you’ll sense a kind of incompleteness.

Stewart does a credible job mimicking Jett, not the hardest thing in the world to do with a performer with such a self-conscious image. Fanning is suitably histrionic in the main role of Currie, but in trying to get beneath the surface she loses the more provocative edge of the real performer’s image.

There are bits of two better films in here. One is a movie about Kim Fowley, the legendary music biz nutcase whose role in guiding the band depends on who is telling you about it. Actor Michael Shannon ably taps into Fowley’s weirdness, but it’s only scratching the surface. Google a recent interview Fowley did for the LA Record and you’ll see what I mean.

The other movie starts when this one ends and tells the story of the band member’s post-20 lives. You can actually see that, in an unsettling documentary called Edgeplay, directed by the Runaways’ latter-day bassist Vicki Blue. It’s not a movie to nourish rock-and-roll dreams, which is why it’s on DVD on The Runaways is in movie theaters.

Watch the trailer for The Runaways

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