dir: Floria Sigismondi
[img_assist|nid=1272|title=Cherry Bomb. Awfully literal, don't you think?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=296|height=438]
The mark of a film succeeding in its job, in this case when it’s based on real events, is usually that after watching it, you know more about the subject matter than before.
Right now, at this moment in time, I know just as much about The Runaways as I did before watching this flick, except for two minor facts: that their manager was a total creep, and that the band members used to lez out at the drop of a hat.
Other than that, it’s not very educational. But then again, it doesn’t really need to be. You could argue that if a flick about the Spice Girls of their era captures the essence of the time (mid seventies, as punk was exploding across the world), and the essence of what made the band noteworthy (that they were a briefly successful all-girl rock band), then it’s achieved its mission.
That’s not what I’m arguing. I said you could argue that. I couldn’t.
Based on this flick, the two major achievements The Runaways are responsible for are a) that it launched the eventual career of Joan Jett, whose most famous single is still a mainstay on golden oldie radio, and b) it gave Kristen Stewart, the notorious non-actor from those godawful Twilight flicks, something to do in between the production of those godawful Twilight flicks.
Maybe the other real indication of The Runaways' merits or importance is that a biopic was made about them. You know you’ve made it when they make a flick about you. Just ask John Wayne Gacy or Mark Chapman.
Because if you didn’t know that The Runaways, independent and regardless of their record sales or brief fame, inspired a thousand musicians, and a lot of girls to pick up the guitar, you certainly wouldn’t have figured it out from watching this flick.
It hardly matters, really, and truth be told, we don’t need no education in the form of a didactic biopic that would follow the lines of every other musical biopic. It’s enough that they get some of the era stuff right, and the (very slight) characterisations. It’s enough for me.
Though Joan Jett is the most famous alumnus of the band, more focus is given to the lead singer Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, who is dead on with that dead-eyed stare. A reluctant but hardcore partier, she exudes indecision in embracing the limelight even as she’s crashing and burning before she’s really had much of a chance to fly. She models herself on her idol, turning herself into a slightly more girly clone of David Bowie, whereas Joan models herself on her idol, and turns herself into a slightly more masculine clone of Suzi Quatro. The others hardly matter, if the flick is to be believed, even if it was Joan and Sandy West (Stella Maeve) who started the band.
So much time is devoted to giving Michael Shannon opportunities to scream insane dialogue that you’d think the flick was about their manager Kim Fowley, moreso than the girls, since he preens, pounces and carries on like an angry queen in every single goddamn scene. They never say it out loud, but he’s clearly portrayed as an LA version of Malcolm McLaren: a vain egomaniac who greatly underestimates the intelligence of the audience (and the band) and seeks to profit from it.
When he hears how old Cherie is, he bellows “JAIL fucking BAIT! JACK fucking POT!” That’s the kind of film this is, and kind of nut he was. He swears in creative ways that make me wonder whether his dialogue was scripted, or whether he was making up insane and profane blather on the fly.
In reality Joan and Sandy West had been playing for a while, and whilst Fowley played a role in getting various girls together in order to exploit them more efficiently, he didn’t create the band like the kinds of impresarios who manufactured the Spice Girls, or the Pussycat Dolls, or those awful boy bands of yesteryear.
Regardless, it’s impossible to see them as anything but a fabrication, as a stunt, despite the fact that these girls weren’t fakes like The Monkees or anything. They really are shown as being helpless without the guidance of Fowley, who was a song writer and producer more than anything else.
In between his insane rants, which also are more his attempt to guarantee that all the crazy roles that used to be given to Christopher Walken are now to come to him, he breaks down the dynamic of what is going to make them popular if they are to succeed in their chosen field: sex. Now, not only do they have to sell themselves as sex objects (which is the reason the blond Cherie is hand-picked to be lead singer), but they have to convey or project a particularly aggressive form of grunting sexuality, unencumbered and unalloyed by genteel or ‘soft’ notions of femininity.
In other words, he commands them to rock out with their cocks out, and to think with their dicks.
Now, I’m not sure how much Fowley knew about female anatomy back in the day. He grew up in a different time, having been born in the 1930s. Maybe he didn’t know that much about biology. It’s not likely that he didn’t know about girls being different downstairs, but, like everything else in this world being possible, that, too, is possible. We do see a scene where Fowley is having sex with a woman on a table, but maybe he wasn’t sure about what was fitting where. He is also on the phone at the time, so he could have been doubly distracted.
We know that a) these girls probably didn’t possess penises, and b) they sure as fuck didn’t need them to become the premier girl rock band of the 1970s. Joan doesn’t have much of a distance to travel in order to get there. She’s not only portrayed as a fairly tomboyish chick, but also as one whose mostly a churlish mixture of James Dean and Lou Reed, with no need for instruction on the road to rock stardom. There’s nothing gooey about the persona she creates, or had help creating. She’s not sporting a come-hither, passive object of your desires look: she looks and acts (well portrayed, I have to admit, by Kristen Stewart) like she’s as likely to fuck you or fuck you over, regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl. She’s shown cracking on to anything around her, but there’s nothing gentle about it, nor does it colour the narrative (though you can argue that, despite the historical record of what these girls got up to, showing it here is the pinnacle of cynical lipstick lesbian titillation for its own sake).
It’s different for Cherie, though, and Dakota Fanning goes a long way towards showing the difficulties involved in creating and maintaining her persona. Fifteen is way too young to be a rock star, despite the lures of the limelight and the conviction that one was born for the stage. The usual musical biopic trajectory of going from a nobody to stardom to drug-addled fuck-up is of course present here too, it’s just that, considering the ages of the participants involved, it happens far quicker. She goes from a girl singing in front of the mirror, to a corseted and suspenders wearing super strumpet in record time, which upped their profile and probably created their success, but led to almost instantaneous burnout as well.
Do we care about her character? I’m not sure. As ugly and uncomfortable as it is to see her doing horrible photo shoots for Japanese perverts, or to see her wearing that gear that makes her look like she should be in the Lady Marmalade film clip that came out around the time of Moulin Rouge, the toll it’s taking on her is not that clear apart from the fact that she staggers around completely out of it most of the time. She goes from wide-eyed but dead inside wannabe to sex bomb stage striding cheetah instantly, and almost drowns in the tidal pool of booze and drugs, but we’re not as privy as to what’s going on in her mind, despite the attention given to her family and especially her relationship with her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough). The sister vacillates between resentment about being left behind, and envy in equal parts. The relationship between the sisters is probably the most believable in the film, seeing as they mostly speak to each other in an unforced deadpan, though the dynamic between Cherie and Joan is pretty strong, too.
A strangely powerful scene occurs where she’s on stage after practicing a certain manoeuvre with the microphone, which doesn’t make sense at first, until she’s on stage, and you can see how she’s choosing to put Fowley’s advice into action, by creating the biggest swinging dick for herself. It’s pretty unambiguous.
The other scene involves her crushing some pills on the floor with her impossibly high platform boots. It looks like a gesture of “Just Say No To Drugs”, and then she kneels down to snort up the residue. I’m the last person to idealise drug use, but that’s a pretty awesome scene.
I will say that I was most gratified at where she ends up, or, more accurately, relieved at her fate, more than anything else. If the film doesn’t really encompass what they achieved, why and how, then maybe it doesn’t matter that much. I mean, these girls made four albums together, played CBGBs, they toured with The Ramones for crying out loud, and yet none of that makes it into the film. And maybe it didn’t need to. The flick is, considering the focus, and the origin of its money, clearly meant to be about Cherie and Joan more than the other girls.
And that’s almost to an absurd degree, since the bass player character played by Alia Shawkat is a composite of the bass players the band went through (with the frequency that Spinal Tap went through drummers), and doesn’t get a single line of dialogue that I can remember. Perhaps even most insulting (to the other girls), the ending captions onscreen telling us what happened only to Cherie and Joan post-Runaways heyday, and don’t even mention Sandy’s bitchin’ fate (she died of lung cancer in 2006) or anything about poor Lita Ford.
Not that it matters. What matters to me is that it gave some impression of a brief and thrilling period of time that influenced the music I love for decades to come. I could care less about the crap that turns up on golden oldies radio, but the all - or mostly - girl bands that I came to love as a teenager and beyond (Babes in Toyland, L7, Veruca Salt, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Hole et bloody cetera) definitely had a trail blazed for them. It’d be completely inaccurate to imply that without Runaways those other bands wouldn’t have existed, because there were plenty of other women playing in the punk rock field completely independent of what these lunachicks were up to, but they certainly inspired a lot of people to rock out, both boys and girls, to pick up their instruments and rock out like there’s no tomorrow.
And they deserve to be canonised for that.
7 times this is probably the best thing most of these actors will ever do in the course of their careers, and that’s a bit sad, out of 10
“Hey, hecklers drill really worked. This fucker tossed a bottle at me and I smashed it right back into her face!” – way to go, Joanie – The Runaways.