Capturing the thrills and excesses of rock ‘n’ roll stardom is a sure allure for filmmakers, but getting the story right is tricky business. Even Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s roman à clef about rock lifestyle glitz, eases into the stuff of Hollywood hooey at times. The Runaways, a taut and engaging account about proto-female-rocker Joan Jett’s first band from the mid ’70s, fares better than most, partly because it limits its narrative focus to a tight period of time, rather than cramming the long haul storyline into a fictionalized, VH1-style package.
Tensions between characters hold the film together and keep it moving forward; namely leather-donning Jett’s ambitious sparkplug personality (Kristen Stewart), the foul-mouthed and conniving manager and band-maker Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sweet and game teen lead singer Cheri Currie (Dakota Fanning)—upon whose book the film is based.
Those three central performances anchor the film. Stewart is spot-on as Jett, tough and ambitious and nobody’s fool in the testosterone-pumped world of rock ‘n’ roll. Fanning is surprisingly strong and subtle, in a role tailor-made for her growing-up-in-public process as an actress. Here she plays a young woman on the bridge between childhood and adulthood, seduced into the sexualized world of rock music, but clinging to some more innocent tug from her family life, however dysfunctional it may be.
It probably helps, too, that the film’s director is in some ways an outsider to the Hollywood way: Floria Sigismondi, a photographer and director best known for dynamic music videos and art world links to the likes of Cindy Sherman and Joel Peter Witkin. And cinematographer Benoît Debie’s visually entrancing work, which moves smoothly from stylization to storytelling objectivity, is one of the more notable elements in the film.
Make no mistake, though, The Runaways is a genre picture at the core. It’s a compacted rock rise-and-fall saga with the usual scenes of high hopes in humble digs—in this case, a trailer in the San Fernando Valley—and debauchery in fancy hotel rooms, all lubed by the clichés of magazine montages and blowups in the studio.
Oh, and not incidentally, the music rocks.