Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Runaways

The Runaways *** ½
Directed by:
Floria Sigismondi
Written By: Floria Sigismondi based on the book by Cherie Currie.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett), Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie), Michael Shannon (Kim Fowley), Stella Maeve (Sandy West), Scout Taylor-Compton (Lita Ford), Alia Shawkat (Robin), Riley Keough (Marie Currie).

Like the band The Runaways, the movie of the same name is a wonderful guilty pleasure of a movie. The music The Runaways made in their brief career in the 1970s is not exactly brilliant, but there is some sort of perverse thrill in listening to these teenage girls sing about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Yes, they were exploited by their manager (Kim Fowley, here played brilliantly by Michael Shannon) and the lead singer Cherie Currie (embodied wonderfully by Dakota Fanning) was chewed up and spit out by the industry, but their music, and this movie, is still incredibly fun. That Joan Jett (a passionate Kristen Stewart) went on to have a real music career is more a testament to her passion, determination and talent and less to do with this band itself is the kind of inspiring aspect of the movie. Cherie and Joan were always a study in contrasts, which this movie underlines.

It’s the mid 1970s. Punk music is just coming to the forefront, and David Bowie is breaking all the rules with his glam rock. A teenage Joan Jett has little talent on the guitar, but she wants to rock. She meets Fowley at a club and tells him that she wants to form an all girls rock band. Fowley thinks this is a brilliant idea, and puts Joan in contact with some of the other teen girls he knows that play instruments. Their sound is raw and harsh, but he thinks they are missing something. When he sees Cherie Currie at the club a while later, he thinks he has found it – the blonde bombshell with sex appeal to be the lead singer. When he finds out she is only 16, he likes it even more (or in his words, “Jail fucking bait. Jack fucking pot”). After a few gigs they are signed to a major label and become celebrities. For Joan, it is all about the music. For Fowley, it is about making money and he knows what sells – sex – and Cherie has more appeal with her blonde hair and good looks than Joan with her hard ass attitude and leather jackets. Cherie is pushed to the front, and gets more attention than anyone else. Coming from a broken home, where her mother has just fled to Indonesia with her new husband, and her father is dying because of her alcoholism, Cherie eats the attention up for a while. But life on the road – with all the drugs, and all the sex takes its toll. It isn’t long before the band is flaming out.

As a movie, The Runaways doesn’t really break any new ground. It is your standard issue sex, drugs and rock n’roll biopic that we have seen before. The difference here is that the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Recent movies in this genre – Ray and Walk the Line among them – take themselves a little too seriously, and are weighed down by Oscar expectations a little bit too much. The Runaways is a straight ahead, balls to the wall rock movie, and good God, is it fun to watch.

I have always loved Kristen Stewart as an actress, and look forward to that day (hopefully coming soon) where she is free from the burden of the Twilight series. Yes, the movies have made her a HUGE star, and she is the best part about them, but the movies take the edge off her personality, and make her act like a whiny, spoiled teenager with a starry eyed look of love on her face the whole time. They are not a challenge for her. In Joan Jett, she finds the type of role she excels at, and it’s no coincidence that it is the exact opposite kind of role as Bella Swan. Joan Jett wouldn’t just sit around pining for Edward, but what go out and get laid – man, woman it doesn’t matter – as her revenge. Stewart rips into the role with gusto and delivers a wonderful performance.

Dakota Fanning is Stewart’s equal as Cherie Currie, the slightly more innocent, more naïve teenager. Unlike Jett, she doesn’t appear to have much experience with sex or drugs when she joins The Runaways, but she certainly get her share during the course of this movie. Like last year’s dreadful Push, where Fanning was far and away the best part, her performance here struck me as a little girl playing dress-up as an adult – and that works for this movie. Fanning doesn’t have the sexuality to her that Stewart does, and seeing her prance around in next to nothing was not a sexual turn on for me, but almost rather sad – she doesn’t know what she is getting herself into until it’s too late. It’s still too early in Fanning’s career to tell if she will be able to leave the child star behind and find her way as an adult actress (when she has to play a real adult character, which will be coming soon, it will be dreadful if she still looks like a kid playing dress-up), but here she is wonderful. She growls her vocals wonderfully well, and is the emotional heart of the movie (not surprisingly, since the film is best on the real Currie’s memoirs).

The other key performance is the incomparable Michael Shannon, who in my mind just keeps proving there is nothing he cannot do. From his slightly deranged military man in World Trade Center, to his older brother with a vengeful side in the under seen Shotgun Stories, to his schizophrenic in Bug to his Oscar nominated work in Revolutionary Road, Shannon has already proved to be one of the best actors of his generation. Here, his Fowley is sexually ambigious and incredibly strange, as he talks about how “rock music is about balls. You want to be an artist, go cut off your ear and send it to your boyfriend”. Yes, he is exploiting these young girls, but he is so charming, you almost like him in spite of himself. He certainly is among the most memorable characters to come along this year so far.

The movie was written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, a music video director making her feature debut here. She nails the time period perfectly, and keeps the movie going at an almost breakneck speed – at least until the end, which is dragged out perhaps a little too far. Her passion for the project is clear in every frame of the movie. The Runaways is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – but it certainly is the most fun I had at the movies in a while.

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