The Runaways (2010)

Posted: April 12, 2010 in Kim Nicolini
Tags: , , ,

The Runaways as Costume Drama
Hot Chicks Who Rock

By KIM NICOLINI

I love rock and roll. That’s no secret, so I was pretty enthusiastic about seeing The Runaways, the movie about the founding and demise of the 70s “Hot Chicks Who Rock” band The Runaways that eventually helped pave Joan Jett’s way to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Don’t get me wrong. This movie is not really about Joan Jett. Based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, the movie definitely leans heavily on the story of Cherie who, as portrayed in the movie, is a complex mishmash of victim, narcissist, child, sex kitten, rebel, and ultimately lost kid. However, Joan Jett provides a critical counterpoint to Cherie’s role and sets up a pretty interesting bipolar split between the two female characters, one that is no stranger to classic cinema, literature, and stage. In The Runaways, you have the lost blonde Cherie who is exploited for her sex kitten appeal, and then you have the kick-ass brunette Joan who takes control of her own destiny.

Through the exploration of these two characters and the utterly brilliant performance by Michael Shannon as the band’s promoter Kim Fowley, the movie addresses the idea of the music product, the role women play in music, how they have been used as objects of consumption, and their self-manipulation of that objectification through guerilla feminism and rock. In the process, however, the picture risks turning itself into another commodity that deliberately promotes the transformation of teenage actresses into sex kitten objects.

Both leads – Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett – are enormous teen idols. Both are part of the Twilight series of films (based on books which overtly promote abstinence and the preservation of teen girl virginity), so it’s pretty provoking that these two “overtly virginal” girls play the lead roles of teen girls who ultimately turn rebellious as hell through rock ‘n roll, get drugged out, fucked up, and have sex not only with men, but with each other. Certainly the audience’s previous experience of these actresses and our knowledge of their virginal youth image manipulate our experience of this film as we watch these teen stars prance about in their underwear (plenty of those scenes), snort drugs off their hands and off the floor, and go in for some hot girl-on-girl kissing (the number one hetero male porn fantasy). It can’t be any accident that the movie (directed and written by women) manipulates these young actresses in the same way that Ken Fowley’s conception of The Runaways manipulated its girl members to fuck with their audience’s sense of femininity, innocence, and sex.

However, like the girls in the band, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are no victims here. Both actresses studied their roles in great depth. They both perfected the physical nuances of the actual musicians, and they both perform their own music, including Kristin Stewart picking up the electric guitar and churning out the music with the very same stage presence as Joan Jett. It’s interesting to think that these two actresses weren’t even alive in the 1970s when The Runaways existed, and that Stewart and Fanning have taken on the roles of 70s female rock icons when the actresses themselves have grown up in a post-rock era in which iconic bands like The Runaways don’t exist anymore and female performers tend to be commodified “acts” (e.g. Lady Gaga and Pink) who don’t even play instruments but instead turn their entire bodies into performance objects. In other words, Stewart and Fanning had to research their roles without the benefit of personal experience, learning of a history and time which no longer exists.

Thinking about the movie in terms of its historical accuracy and the research that went into creating it makes me realize that The Runaways is not just a standard rock biopic, but actually functions like a costume drama. It just so happens that the historic time is 1975 (35 years ago), and the costumes consist of leather jeans, platform shoes, and polyester jumpsuits. Director Floria Sigismondi actually grew up around opera in Italy. Both of her parents were involved in opera, and the movie The Runaways is very much staged like an opera. One of my complaints while watching the film is the lack of dimensionality to the characters except for the film’s tragic heroine Cherie Currie. Yet in thinking about the film as a costume drama with an operatic flare, the intense focus on the tragic heroine and the flatness of the other characters make more sense. It also makes the movie even more interesting to think about.

The Runaways certainly has the lavish production values of a costume drama. The clothes and mise-en-scene are meticulously constructed as if Sigismondi were recreating Victorian England rather than 1970s Los Angeles. Every single detail — from the interior of Cherie’s home, the turntable in her bedroom, the beanbag chair in the trailer where the band practices, the glasses they drink out of, the hotel bedspread, the clunky platform shoes, and the station wagon the band tours in — is recreated with meticulous accuracy. And the environment of the nightclub is perfectly portrayed — the graffiti plastered bathroom, the pulsing distorted sound, intoxicated dancing girls, and overall anarchy are perfectly executed.

In the middle of all of this you have the “tragic heroine” Cherie playing out the complexities of being a teen girl in the 1970s. She is bolstered by Joan Jett and her electric guitar and black leather jeans, but all the background material comes to us through Cherie. We see her in the high school talent show lip syncing to David Bowie and getting heckled. We see her struggling with her relationship to her alcoholic father and her materialistic mother (who kicked her father out for “leaving water rings on the coffee table”). We see Cherie struggle with her identity in the tension between who she is, as reflected in her sister Marie who works at a hot dog chain, versus who she wants to be (David Bowie in a girl’s body). Although Cherie functions within the structure of this “opera”as its tragic heroine, she is too complex a character to be altogether tragic.

Played against Joan Jett’s one-dimensional, rigid, determined, unflinching drive for rock and roll success, Cherie is a mess of contradictions. She is a child, a sex kitten, a narcissist, a rebel, and partially – but never wholly – a victim. Even as she is getting pummeled on the high school auditorium stage while lip syncing to David Bowie, she maintains a self-aware defiance as she stands firmly in the middle of the stage with her two middle fingers raised in a defiant “fuck you” as trash hits her body. The way Cherie is filmed brings out the contradictions of her character through her physical appearance. She looks at once both purely innocent and unnaturally aged. As she’s crawling around on the lawn of her home for a photo shoot with a Japanese pop magazine or parading around the hotel room in her “Victoria’s Secret” porno outfit, her skin simultaneously looks like that of the fifteen-year-old girl that she is, but also has a kind of sag, an unhealthy hint of bad food and bad drugs, a barely visible trace of cellulite lurking under the surface. The appearance of the character’s physical external body becomes evidence of her internal contradictions.

Cherie is messy because she lived in messy times, especially for girls growing up on the heels of feminism, but with most of their female role models – mothers, teachers, Girl Scout leaders – still lingering within in the confining culture of the 1950s. Girls growing up in the 1970s didn’t really have a place to fit, so they didn’t try. Instead, they rebelled. The movie opens with Cherie and her sister Marie (played with a perfect combination of longing and resentment by Riley Keough) standing in a bathroom. In a scene of clinical accuracy, Cherie shoves a bunch of paper towels in her panties because she just got her period, while a few minutes later as the two girls are driving with Marie’s boyfriend, Cherie announces that Marie isn’t even wearing underpants.

Indeed, the image of girls tossing their panties is the perfect embodiment of what it meant to be a teenage girl in the 70s. While feminists burned their bras in the 60s, teen girls in the 70s were raised on a mess of contradictions, from the hairy armpit feminists, to their “cocktail generation” mothers, to the pop porn icons of Xaviera Hollander and Linda Lovelace as some kind of pro-sex feminist ideals. The band The Runaways and subsequently Joan Jett and Blackhearts were the perfect embodiment of the contradictions of being a girl in the 70s, and they paved the way for the kind of guerilla punk sex kitten feminism that would emerge in the late 80s and 90s in bands like L7 and Courtney Love’s Hole. That opening scene sets the audience up to experience this “mess,” then cuts directly to Joan Jett in a vintage clothing shop where she is being ridiculed for not shopping in the “girls” section. Joan dumps a bag of coins on the counter, points to a man in retro 50s leather gear, and says, “I want to look like him.” So those opening scenes perfectly merge the contradictory state of the teen female body in 1975 – do we rebel by exploiting our sex and tossing our panties, by wearing leather jeans and playing electric guitar, or by doing all of the above?

Interestingly the most insightful commentary and self-critique in the movie comes from Michael Shannon’s brilliant no-holds-barred performance as Kim Fowley, the rock promoter who “creates” The Runaways. Shannon’s costumes, make-up, body language and facial expressions are the perfect culmination of a fucked-up male identity driven by sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and an unfaltering drive for success at any cost. He realizes that what rock ‘n roll needs is “Girls With Cocks,” but he also realizes that the girls can’t forfeit their female sex appeal for those cocks. Understanding that rock is a male-dominated platform, Fowley brilliantly decides to use the Cock of Rock against itself by packaging it inside teenage sex kitten rock stars. He is completely self-conscious of his own exploitive role with the girls and how to use them to manipulate the fuck out of the male audience. He calls the girls “dogs” and “bitches”, goads them into getting rougher and tougher – at one point he literally throws dog shit at them – and turns them into a rage and sex-fueled rock commodity.

As offensive as the things Fowley’s character says and does seem, the cold, hard fact is that everything he says is true. It’s like Pop Wisdom at its most profound. Show the male audience the sex and make them want it, but turn it back on them and don’t give it away. When he throws shit at the girls, they learn to deflect it with their instruments – guitars, basses, microphones. In other words, Fowley toughens the girls up by literalizing the “shit” that they will be subjected to in the male-dominated world of rock by teaching them to stand up, say “Fuck you!”, and fight back without ever forfeiting their sex appeal. Of course, as wise as Fowley is and as much as he understands how to market the girls and use the male audience’s ego and consumption of the female object against itself, the bottom line is that Fowley totally exploited the girls for his own financial interest. In the end, he was really just a pimp, though a pimp with a profound vision that would later be exploited to the fullest by girl rock bands (including Joan Jett and the Blakchearts) who would promote themselves without a man telling them what to do.

Cherie and Joan’s relationship to Fowley illustrates the tensions and contradictions between these two female “rock stars.” Joan self-consciously decides she is going to play guitar, write songs, and be a rock star, and when she spots Fowley at a nightclub, she aggressively goes up to him and promotes herself. Cherie, on the other hand, is a bit of a wallpaper rebel, donning the make-up, doing the lip-synching and hanging out in the nightclub but not really seeking to promote herself. Whereas Joan Jett finds Fowley and convinces him to take on her rock cause, Fowley discovers Cherie simply because he wants her look (Bardot on a motorcycle). While Joan Jett self-consciously sets out to tackle the male world of rock ‘n roll with an electric guitar (as witnessed in an early scene where her guitar teacher tells her, “Girls don’t play electric guitar” but she ignores him and pounds at the guitar anyway), Cherie simply puts on the veneer of rock (the make-up and the hair) without really taking any agency in her own destiny. Whereas Joan chooses Fowley, Fowley and Joan choose Cherie: “We love your look. We are choosing you to be part of Rock N Roll history.”

Agency is clearly the biggest difference between Joan and Cherie. While Joan never falters in her vision and clearly knows how to manipulate her “rock cock” and self-consciously navigate the line between attraction and compulsion, Cherie seems to just go through the gestures and play dress-up without actually understanding fully what she is doing. Joan is very present, very strong, very much the heroine who endures and succeeds using an electric guitar as her cock, while Cherie is somewhat of the dumb sex kitten dolled up in her porno outfit and waving a microphone around her thigh like a cock. The split between these two female personas in the film and the band embodies the split in music in general. Can a girl make it big by being a good musician or does she only succeed by being a scandalous sex mess? (See Courtney Love for details.)

What the split between these characters did for me and others I have spoken to is make me want to see more of Joan Jett. The movie, being an operatic costume drama based on a memoir, focuses on the tragic heroine Cherie, but it left me wanting more Joan or even just more of Joan and Cherie together. The movie interweaves a quiet love story between Joan and Cherie, but it never elaborates on it more than the periodic girl-on-girl kissing scene. Also, the shift to Joan at the end is very abrupt. Suddenly Cherie is in rehab, and Joan goes on to create (and self-produce) Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. That left me wanting more Joan. It’s almost like the movie is one movie (the Cherie Currie memoir) with another movie lurking inside it (the Joan Jett story) which never fully comes to fruition. In the final scene of the movie when Cherie calls into a radio station to speak with Joan (who is now a huge success), and the music cuts to Joan Jett and the Blackheart’s version of “Crimson and Clover”, the pang of love between the two girls and my longing and desire to see more of their story was almost unbearable. Never have the lines: “Ah, now I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her, crimson and clover” left me feeling such solidity in absence. Then again, maybe we are just being set up for the sequel!

Nevertheless, even though I wanted more Joan, the movie delivered plenty and certainly took me for an awesome Girl Rock ride. The movie unfolds the story of this band with editorial and filmmaking chops that keep us on a rollicking rollercoaster. It reels, spins, and rocks. Certainly, spending 107 minutes looking at hot girls in underpants, jumpsuits, sex kitten confections, and leather pants doesn’t hurt on the enjoyment scale. But it’s not just the pretty girls’ faces that keep us hooked. The movie maintains the urgent pacing of a speeding train getting ready to derail at any moment that not only keeps us watching but also embodies the explosive/implosive feel of the times.

But still, I can’t help but question whether this movie about the selling of sex kittens with guitars for profit is guilty of the same tactics that Kim Fowley was attempting to do with the band The Runaways. The movie self-consciously addresses how The Runaways were marketed as a girly sex product by itself being a sexy consumer item. It teases us along with scenes familiar from pornography marketed at hetero men (showerhead masturbation scenes and girl-on-girl kissing), but I’m not sure it ever really critiques its own position or asks the audience to question its role and complicity in perpetuating young girls as sex object commodities.

In the end, I think it is better that the film was made even if it is unsure how to realize its own self-critique. Sure it’s messy, but the historic times it depicts were messy. They were raunchy and full of contradictions, and the movie is as rough-hewn, sloppy and in-your-face as teen girls in the 1970s had to be. Despite The Runaways’ flaws, it’s good to see a movie about girls picking up instruments and playing rock and roll. It’s good to see a movie that navigates the contradiction between women who are respected as musicians (few and far between) and the women who are simply revered as dolled-up, slickly produced objects of consumption. The movie is especially effective since the actresses performed all the music themselves, and in so doing they reminded us of a historic time when a group of girls led by Joan Jett, picked up instruments, wrote some kick ass songs, and threw their sex power and their musical talent in the face of the audience through rock n roll. There is power in that message that transcends the film’s problematic aspects.

Ultimately, despite its many flaws, I think The Runaways does a lot of things that are positive. It’s written and directed by women, and those movies a few and far between in Hollywood. The movie also breaks Hollywood out of the rut of typical female roles in movies (girls who are getting married, can’t get married, and/or have jealousy issues; virgins who love vampires; older women having sex with men – as if that’s revolutionary – ; and girls as the wallpaper sidekicks to boys who also get to be the star “girl” in white, male-driven movies from the Apatow machine to Mumblecore crap). Instead of these tired and limiting female roles, The Runaways shows girls kicking ass playing real instruments (instruments historically designated for “boys”) and shows how at one point in history, girls really did take a rebellious stand in music by becoming actual musicians who could play the fuck out of an electric guitar. It shows us that there is potential in music for girls besides being pyrotechnic self-reflexive media constructions of their own female sexuality. The Runaways addresses exploitation, female sexuality, and male dominance of the media, and because it does that, it is an easy target for critique, but ultimately the movie’s merits heavily outweigh its shortcomings. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it offers up plenty to think about. And, like a good historical costume drama, it looks awesome as well.

Comments
  1. Doug Lynner says:

    Some of your readers may find my recent radio show, Tribute To The Runaways, an interesting listen. It explores the band’s music, solo music and bands that have benefited from their groundbreaking work. It can be streamed for free at http://www.neatnetnoise.com.

  2. Editor says:

    –> Joe’s review of The Runaways film here, with mention of the better documentary on the band: Edgeplay:

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