Saturday 11 September 2010

Queens of Noise: "The Runaways"

One problem British audiences will have to overcome, confronted with The Runaways, is a degree of unfamiliarity with its true-life source material. The better known of its two lead characters, Joan Jett (née Larkin), remains a one-hit wonder in the UK, and even that one hit - "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" - will perhaps now be better known to the crucial teen demographic in the version popularised by Britney Spears. We could, then, choose to view Floria Sigismondi's film as a treatise on the origins of girl power - pinpointing exactly where today's female rockers borrowed some of their attitude(s) from - or alternatively a hellacious transatlantic equivalent of the Suzi Quatro story. It's certainly diverting, but I'm not wholly sure that's enough.

These were, of course, The Runaways, an all-girl group fronted by the 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the scarcely older Jett (Kristen Stewart), and manufactured by raddled Svengali Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, enjoying himself far more than in this week's Herzog film) - not specifically as a statement of female independence, rather as a reaction to the feyness of much contemporaneous boy rock, as personified by Bowie and the other androgynes Fowley accused of "leaving their lipstick over one another's cocks". For the group's manager, The Runaways' music wasn't women's lib, it was women's libido, and his instructions were clear: "I wanna hear you bitches growl."

From the attention Sigismondi pays to the trailer-park dogshit the band have to negotiate to rehearse, or the inclusion of a scene in which Fowley recruits Currie in a nightclub for her budding charms ("Jail-fucking-bait. Jack-fuckin'-pot!"), it's apparent The Runaways is intended as a coming-of-age movie with a few rougher edges than is the norm: its opening image is of a drop of menstrual blood hitting a Hollywood boulevard, the first of several cherrybombs here, and one that immediately situates the film both geographically and emotionally. In the main, though, the film is abstracted such that it might serve as a chronicle of the (mis)adventures of an entirely fictional all-girl supergroup.

Sigismondi, a former pop promo director, is plenty confident around this other band's rock 'n' roll, charting the upshift from illegal Californian house parties to the inevitable big-in-Japan stage, and its lead singer's personal progression from meek schoolgirl blanching at Fowley's fouler innuendo to corset-sporting sexbomb flaunting herself in top-shelf magazines. The script can therefore pay lip service to the credibility debate: when these raunchy photos of Currie emerge in the course of an especially fractious world tour, Jett instructs her bandmate firmly to "publicise the music, not your crotch" - advice certain young starlets might do well to take on board.

It's just a pity Sigismondi treats the sex and drugs that were an essential part of the Runaways' story as teasing, weren't-they-naughty? cutaways; among the clipreel highlights guaranteed to spark fevered Internet chatter without troubling the lawyers unduly, we get behind-the-shower-curtain masturbation, coke-snorting in airplane bathrooms, and a dope-fuelled, soft-focus Sapphic romp between Fanning and Stewart (set to the low growl of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog") intended to compensate for the coy treatment of the Jett-Currie relationship elsewhere in the film. Maybe that's had it how to be with these characters still touring the globe - or, indeed, with these performers involved.

It may be a comment on the unworldly nature of the current generation of actors, but even as press-ganged posethrowers stumbling over their own high heels, the two leads seem young in screen terms. Fanning is particularly glassy and unknowable, which may or may not have been part of Currie's appeal (and may or may not have had something to do with her drug use). Stewart, at least, lends Jett a strident, kick-ass attitude that should confound Bella Swan haters a while longer, but the rest of the band fade into the background: Alia Shawkat, so sparky in the recent Whip It, has nothing to do as a composite of all the Runaways' bassists. They were a here-today-gone-tomorrow act, it's true, so any film account would be striving to capture lightning in a bottle; The Runaways can't quite make the case this music needed outside the 45s, but Sigismondi at least has a certain fun trying.

The Runaways is on general release.

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