Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart in The Runaways

Movie Review: The Runaways

In The Runaways, the debut feature for music video director Floria Sigismondi, the early tempestuous days of Joan Jetts rock career are revisited without any cloying nostalgia. Sigismondi has made a rousing portrait of the 1970s teenage band and taken a hard look at life on the road at a time when most girls with bands were the groupies.

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart in "The Runaways"

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart in "The Runaways"

With two major young stars in the cast, the Runaways can connect with the young female audience internationally, which could also mean significant soundtrack purchases. Another market is Jetts fans from when she started – fiftyish like herself now —  a huge international public that could bring their children to the film, or their grandchildren. Kristen Stewarts glow from Twilight will also help globally.

Basing her script on the memoir Neon Angel: the Cherie Currie Story, by the bands singer Cherie Currie (played by Dakota Fanning), Sigismondi returns us to the days of disco clothes and platform shoes when aspiring rock girls were Bowie fans (with obligatory Bowie hair) and punk was an unformed barrage of angry testosterone. Like most pop fads, a lot of it seems silly now, and the film doesnt play down that unintentional humor.

Kristen Stewart in The Runaways

Kristen Stewart in The Runaways

The story builds around Jett and Currie, with Jett (played by Kristen Stewart) as the serious girl who always knew she wanted to play music, and Currie as the blonde recruited at age 15 in a bar for her looks, and then taught to sing from her gut.

Both actresses do their own singing more than competently. Stewart, who conveys Jetts no-nonsense determination, lacks Jetts guttural raspiness, but her attitude fills the gap.

Fanning as Cherie begins as a shy girl who got by with a lot on simply being blonde and aloof. In an audition scene in the filthy abandoned trailer where the group rehearsed in 1975, she is stumbling clumsily through what would become the incendiary tune, “Cherry Bomb,” moments after manager Kim Fowley and Jett write the song on the spot. The songs birth pains could be a short film. Remember, this is a director who made music videos until now.

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart

Fannings performance of the same song on the groups 1977 tour in Japan reveals the singer that Curry had become, and reminds us why the song terrified the parents of teenage girls. Imagine how a new generation of parents (raised on Joan Jett) will feel when the soundtrack from The Runaways is downloaded in bedrooms around the world.

Sigismondi, knowing the dramatic economy of music videos, uses performance scenes sparingly but effectively, balancing the new romance of the road for these children with a backstage reality check. Conflicts would eventually lead to Curries departure from the band ad her retur4n to boredom and family anguish in the suburbs.

The Runaways Movie

The Runaways

Crucial to their story was manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a curse-spitting rogue – without a conscience, in this version of the story —  who gave the girls their first break.

As Fowley, Michael Shannon relishes in the gonzo rock entrepreneur role, erupting with zinger lines that any comedian would envy. Music “is not about womens lib,” he lectures Cherie, “its about womens libido.”  Despite his cocktail of greed and lust, which Shannon plays to the hilt – hell no doubt get a supporting actor nomination for this one —  the eager girls signed with Fowley, indicating how desperate they were to start a band, or how innocent, or how intimidated.

Cinematographer Benoit Debie and production designer Eugenio Caballero capture the disco kitsch of those early days (and the numbing blandness of the suburban “valley”), and chart the visual evolution toward hardened punk, numbed with drugs.

Stewart and Fanning give us the musical and sexual cockiness of teenage ambition, along with its  vulnerabilities, which ended up sending Cherie home. (Shes a chain-saw artist now.) Yet performances dont go for the kind of self-destructive crescendos that would aim at making The Runaways another Sid and Nancy. The same deft modulation in Sigismondis direction sustains scenes of Cheries volatile family life, in which Riley Keough (Elvis Presleys granddaughter — talk about volatile family life ) plays her forbearing twin sister Marie, who stays home reluctantly to care for their drunken father.  Tatum ONeal, in a welcome come-back, is blithely vain as the Currie girls self-absorbed inattentive mother.

A vivid period piece – Stewart and Fanning werent even born when all this happened —  The Runaways is anything but an extended music video. It is an auspicious turn for Sigismondi.

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