The Runaways: Finally, A Music Biopic That Isn’t Just A Love Letter

By Preston Garrett · March 26, 2010

So you’re going to show me a rock n’ roll biopic starring not one, but two tween icons. And I’m going to take it seriously? Well…who’s bringing the weed…?

Weed or no weed, nothing could have prepared me for the opening scene of The Runaways The very first shot of this teenage rock tale wadded up my expectations and threw them in the nearest biohazard wastebasket.

The Opening Shot: We see blood dripping on steamy asphalt…

The Reveal: We see the dripping blood is spilling forth from the nether regions of Dakota Fanning…

And finally, the perfect punctuation: Off screen we hear Dakota’s jealous peer, “Why does everything happen to you first?”

The scene couldn’t be a more unexpected tone setter for the true story of the first all-girl rock band formed by Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in the 1970s.

Played by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning respectively, the film utilizes the music biopic conventions that we’ve all become familiar and comfortable with: Act One – the formative stages of the band; Act Two – the rise to fame and acclaim; Act Three – the abuse of fame, sex, and drugs… and the ultimate downfall. Think of Ray, Walk the Line…and maybe Amadeus?

Minus the whole “first all girl rock band” novelty, there’s nothing really earth shattering about the story per se. With the exception of a hilarious and disturbing performance by Michael Shannon as the band’s chauvinistic producer/manager (a perverted Burgess Meredith type circa his performance in Rocky, the story lurks in that tawdry corner of “cliche.” The originality Shannon brings to an otherwise outplayed character simply keeps the other overwrought story conventions less conspicuous – there’s plenty of line blowing and boozing for the whole Manson family. Without any sense of abandon, we see Joan constantly try to reign in the substance crazed Cherie in the truest conventional fashion – Joan being the June Carter to Cherie’s Mr. Cash.

But the story isn’t really what The Runaways is about. It’s the subtext of the story that gives the film a unique stamp. Writer/director Floria Sigismondi captures teenage femme angst and apprehensions with an almost effortless, visual poetic grace. The “factual” story of The Runaways simply gives Sigismondi a stylized backdrop to capture the real fears, curiosities, and bullshit that girls encounter on the cusp of womanhood.

In an age dominated by news stories about the horrors of pubescent drug and sexual experimentation, Sigismondi allows these realities to unfold matter-of-factly on the screen without any real sense of taboo. The character dynamic between Joan and Cherie simply allows these taboos to flourish – the rock n’ roll context cleverly removes any real sense of wrongdoing.

Now I’m not trying to open up a moral argument here about what sexual or drug related behavior is acceptable or unacceptable for teens. I’m simply saying that Sigismondi tailors a poignant and entertaining platform to open up a conversation about these issues. Her well-rounded experience with music video production creates an accessible, heightened visual language that articulates the mainstay adolescent females concerns – lesbian experimentation, being put on an even keel with men, image perception (the slut versus the prude), the role of females within the home. All of which is presented with a true sense of empathy – nothing is embellished for the sake of embellishment.

To boot, The Runaways also gives a keen perspective of something everyone (especially our doe-eyed teens) should be made privy to: how teen bands tick. We’re plagued with the shrink-wrapped wholesomeness of the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, and the High School Musical entourage. Whether it was her intention or not, Sigsimondi’s film left me with the following question: Who are teens really worshipping?

Yeah, maybe I’m digging a little “too” deep here, but isn’t it better to acknowledge the possibility that teen idols are snorting coke off of each others’ genitals, as opposed to enabling the lie our kids’ believe without question? I mean, we’re not dealing with Santa Claus here – we’re dealing with real flesh and blood icons. And that’s what Sigismondi does so well – she puts a human face on the teen idol without it feeling like a tabloid spread, expose, or an overly reverent love letter that justifies abuse (i.e. Notorious…). Everything just is.

The only thing that irked me throughout the film was the casting choices for Joan and Cherie. Stewart and Fanning definitely bring their A games, but at times it feels a little too much like the tween stars get a little wrapped up in portraying caricatured versions of their iconic selves. It’s almost too clever to see the two of them coming to grips with the wiles of fame, the chronic public stalking and recognition, and the ever present persistence of temptation.

Seeing Stewart and Fanning in all their teen phenom glory just kind of cheapened the experience. At times I couldn’t help but think that The Runaways is more of reminder that, yes, the Twilight saga continues this summer whether we like it or not. Casting lesser knowns definitely could have made this film a stand-alone piece, rather than what feels like an interim solution to Twilight down time.

That said, they still got my attention. Female empowerment never looked so…fun.

Score: 85%