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The Runaways

a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Floria Sigismondi

Director Floria Sigismondi

Biopics about famous music entertainers are almost as numerous on Hollywood's list of hits as Westerns and horror/kill flicks. But, being a music group biopic is all that "The Glenn Miller Story" and "The Runaways," have in common. No, "Runaways" has no late, great musician being portrayed in the movie persona James Stewart always projected whether he was Glenn Miller or Monty Stratton, or June Allison inhabiting the little wife role with that cute, gravel-voiced and stoic style she always pulled off so well. Here we have something completely and otherwise different from that in a music biography. It comes from an Italian director who once did videos for Marilyn Manson and David Bowie. Her name is Floria Sigismondi, and with her new film, she gives us a look-see back at the 70s explosion of the Joan Jett juggernaut.

It was only a short time before Joan Jett and the Runaways came on scene that I had made an exit from R&R radio and into…uh… TV, then public broadcasting. So, Joan and her girl dudes were not so much on my radar. That's why I found seeing "The Runaways" more as a quick study for that period of pop music history when I was more concerned with severe weather than what the top hit of the week was.

Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon

It all starts with Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, the sloe-eyed star of some very popular vampire movies you may have heard of) taking up the guitar and being bummed-out with her first guitar teacher showing her the chords to "On Top of Old Smokey." (I know those!) After schmoozing asshole record producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Ms. Jett adds personnel to fill out her first band with the appropriately given name of the Runaways. Fowley was helpful bringing the original members together and is reported to have been abusive to the young women during their association. Shannon really gets his teeth into the Fowley role.

The Runaways' lead singer turns out to be Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning, also known to do vampire films). It's a memoir by Ms. Currie drawn from her Runaway days that sparked the screenplay by director Sigismondi. Jett, who is now 51, is an executive producer.

The film will take you to Decibel City. How could it be any other way what with being about early punk and the burgeoning of all things Goth? Jett's character is shown in the film making-up her own t-shirt with "The Sex Pistols" emblazoned across the front. David Bowie had an even larger influence on the Runaways. That should put you on the right vector, in case you're unfamiliar with that mid 70s scene.

As a musical aside, I've just recently taken-up with a satellite radio music channel that plays Bowie's androgenous "Rebel Rebel" on very tight rotation in a classic 70s format. There's a good dose of that recording in the film, too: a fun, sort of goofy, repetitious song. Of course, others made popular by Jett get the treatment, too.

"The Runaways," in terms of ticket-selling, should have a lot going for it. Stewart and Fanning alone would be enough, however, add the continuing vampire phenomenon as well as the rising social boil-of-a-conflict over gays, lesbians and same sex marriage, and you've got yourself a money maker, seems to me. Maybe even a bagger or two, outside, picketing the cineplex business as being socialistically-prone.

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart

There are no overt girl-on-girl scenes, except for some tender girl- kissing between Stewart and Fanning that should get a 14-year-old boy his money's worth. Moreover, there are portrayed boy-girl scenes (without skin) that were really on the revolting side for these eyes (a la the recent Ben Stiller epic, "Greenberg"). It's part of the script's effort to paint all males as schmucks, which, in this rock music biz venue, might be right on target. I don't know. I just played the records on the air. (That reminds me of an old friend who used to refer to cable channels that program only to women as the "Men-Are-No-Damned-Good" network.)

The harsh, dysfunctional family subplot and the "cry-for-help" songs keep "The Runaways" from being tepid, but, conversely, the film is subtly timid. Indeed, the Joan and Cherie characters are underage females, but Stewart and Fanning---their dialogue notwithstanding---aren't forceful enough. Both women are small in stature, and (this will sound silly to some, I'm sure) when I think of Joan Jett, I see an attractive, robust, tough-bodied female with masculine shoulders. Stewart holds her shoulders at a droop all the way through the movie. Fanning keeps a convincing and stoic, go-to-hell look in her eye most of the time even though she doesn't generate any real pep in her teenage angst.

There's a scene in which impresario Fowley ferociously suggests the Runaways get their game faces on, and really kick-ass on stage. In what may be the film's best speech (delivered quite well by Shannon) Fowley shouts that "rock n' roll is a blood sport!" The gals get ginned-up on that kind of coach-talk a tick or two but not to reveal the edge given by the actual women who peopled the wildly popular Joan Jett bands.

Near the end, Joan is being interviewed in-studio on the radio by a male DJ with a call-in record show. Cherie just happens to be tuned in, and phones in to say hello to Joan. This may be a taking-some-license moment in "Runaways." Whether it's something that occurred or not, the scene walks away as the picture's most humorous stretch. Note the voice and inflections of the radio host. Both are worth several chuckles. A wimp DJ back in the 70s? I don't think so.

Oh yes, something not alluded to in "The Runaways": Joan Jett has been a longtime avid sports fan as well as a strong supporter and entertainer of U.S. military personnel: too cool, Joan.

Now, please excuse me while I cue up "Pennsylvania 6-5000."

"The Runaways" official site.

Opens wide Friday, 4/9.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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