LA, 1975: Feisty guitar-strumming teen Joan Jett (Stewart) wants to form the first kick-ass all-girl band, and with the slimy enthusiasm of record producer Kim Fowley (Shannon) finds 15 year-old Cherie Currie (Fanning), the jailbait in the combo. The band
In the short breath between glam rock and punk rock, The Runaways were the real deal, girls who could deliver raunch and roll. The ‘ch-ch-ch-ch-Cherry Bomb’ on the icing of this funny-sad coming-of-age drama/musical biopic is the postscript at the end in which we learn that Cherie Currie — on whose 1989 autobiography, Neon Angel, the film is based — is now a “chainsaw artist”. What could be more suitable for a retired hard rockin’, re-habbed wild child?
As the driven Joan Jett, pre-eminent screen teen Kristen Stewart has a fierce role and plays ‘angry rebel with a cause’ well. More of the film falls to Dakota Fanning’s vulnerable, sexually exploited Currie. She who wrote the book is the only one to rate a back story — it’s a shame Scout Taylor-Compton’s tough-as-old-boots guitarist Lita Ford and the rest barely register. Michael Shannon, though, is fantastic, playing the colourful Kim Fowley as evil mastermind manager with a savvy but sleazy agenda.
Good period detail alone provides amusements: the platform shoes, the shag haircuts and the slang (“Bitchin’!”). The standout scene is a band rehearsal in a derelict trailer, during which Fowley has the girls pelted with dog poop and tins, prepping them for the most hostile receptions the road can offer.
Writer-director Floria Sigismondi doesn’t offer a great deal of character study or revelatory dialogue. Indeed, the lead trio bring more to the film than they were given on the page. The four years of the band’s life is also something of a blur, between the early tour of dives and the hysterical reception in Japan that did in the girls’ heads. The formative days have the most going for them, the film eventually falling into the predictable showbiz decline story of a drugs and sex meltdown. For the boys there’s some dainty girl on girl action and an abundance of the band cavorting in their panties. It doesn’t get a lot deeper than that, though the soundtrack and atmosphere are a blast.
Cringe-making fun for survivors of the 70s. For the younger majority: a familiar rise and fall of sex, drugs and rock n roll enlivened by the gender reversal and performances.