There’s something ultimately unsatisfying about photographer/music video director Floria Sigismondi’s feature debut. The problem isn’t that it hits so many traditional rock biopic notes. The problem is that it purports to tell the story of a manufactured ’70s all-girl band and, when it’s over, the character you remember most vividly is the guy who did the manufacturing.
As flamboyant producer-puppetmaster Kim Fowley, Michael Shannon dominates the movie as thoroughly as Fowley dominated the five underage California girls he recruited to form the Runaways. Shannon’s a powerful actor, but the reason he walks away with the film is Sigismondi’s weak script. She borrows the broad strokes of the group’s rise and fall from Neon Angel, the 1989 memoir by lead singer Cherie Currie, but she lacks the narrative chops to turn that outline into a story that goes more than skin deep.
Sigismondi’s first mistake, in fact, is focusing on Currie, a vacuous blond Bowie wannabe, instead of on the Runaways’ most talented and enduring alumna, Joan Jett. The movie’s early scenes depict the fortuitous confrontation between the leather-jacketed young rocker — channeled to perfection by Kristen Stewart — and the twitchy Sunset Strip Svengali. Jett practically puts dollar signs in Fowley’s eyes when she tells him about her plan to form a band made up exclusively of teenage girls, and the two scour the L.A. club scene in search of the perfect front person.
Dakota Fanning plays Currie, a lost soul with family problems (mom’s a bitch, dad’s a drunk) who’s selected strictly on the basis of her looks and jailbait status. “I like your style,” the impresario announces after spotting the 15-year-old in a crowded joint one night. “Want to be in a band?” By this time, the rest of the group has miraculously assembled and become a tight, hard-rocking machine rehearsing in a squalid Valley trailer that serves as boot camp for the demented drill sergeant. Currie can’t sing a note. Within weeks, she’s transformed by Fowley into a snarling tigress in platform shoes.
That is to say, the real Cherie Currie was. Fanning never quite convinces in the role. Not as a tough-as-nails trailblazer. Not as a conflicted victim of fame once the Runaways attain it. Least of all as a casualty of the road who one day decides to just say no to stardom and walks away from everything she always wanted without a word of explanation.
Stewart has the opposite problem here. She’s completely believable as Jett, but, until its final scene, Sigismondi’s script keeps her on a leash, relegating her to second string and denying her an opportunity to reveal the thunder god it’s fully apparent she’s born to be. Only in the movie’s last moments, which hint at her second coming as the stadium-filling leader of the Blackhearts (with “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” blasting in the background) does she get her close-up. It’s a thrilling couple of minutes against which everything that precedes it unfortunately pales.
As an overgrown music video, The Runaways suffices nicely. The songs are hardly timeless, but they’re fun and sound great — having been rerecorded for the film by Jett, who executive produced.
As a movie, on the other hand, it’s a bit of a tease. These five girls rewrote the rules of rock. They boldly went where no young women had gone before. It would have been nice to learn more about them as human beings, to discover what made them capable of accomplishing that. Of even wanting that. Sigismondi’s film never gets around to asking such questions, much less answering them.