The Runaways

>> Saturday, April 10, 2010

Yesterday the driver's-side window stopped going up and down all the way, which wouldn't do. I mean, yes, it's a warm Spring and the top's down a lot, but next thunderstorm--well, do I even need to explain anything? So I called the VW dealership and they said they could fit me in this morning; it was actually sort of funny, they asked if 11:30 was too late and I responded, "Well good, because it's Saturday and I like sleeping in?" So, anyway, I went down this morning and spent about two hours down there while they fixed it, and it was still under warranty which was even better. But it left me wondering what to do with the rest of my day.

So I decided, fuck it, I'll hang out a bit and then go see The Runaways.

I mentioned this before, actually, that I wanted to see the movie but sort of didn't. It's showing in Charlotte now in a handful if theatres, just two or three, and like I just said, I decided why the hell not. It seemed like I almost had to when I got into the Bug, turned the radio back on--and heard Kim Fowley's radio show on the satellite radio (it's hard to call it a coincidence or synchronicity when I know he's got a show on every weekend that I usually don't listen to, but it seemed to signify something the day after The Runaways' general release). It was also an excuse to eat McDonald's for the first time in months and months and months, which may not sound like much of a treat and frankly wasn't. It was alright, but somehow that restaurant was better when I was a little kid.

But I digress. Some of you are probably wondering how the movie was. The answer is, alright.

Like several reviewers have said, it's pretty much a stock music biopic. Performer is nobody, becomes somebody, implodes, achieves some kind of redemption, cue a musical highlight and roll credits. It probably doesn't help, ironically, that the movie was produced by Joan Jett from Cherie Currie's autobiography Neon Angel, because the kinda-weird-but-unsurprising-when-you-think-about-it thing is that the other bandmembers get short shrift while the personalities the movie focuses on remain somewhat at a distance. Which is also weird, because this is a movie that's sort of uncompromising in depicting its protagonists huffing or grinding up pills to snort or screwing lots of people even as it maintains a respectful distance from its subjects. But when, f'r'instance Joan Jett tells a radio interviewer near the end of the film that rock'n'roll saved her life, we certainly just have to take her word for it since all the film's shown us of her personal life is that rock'n'roll exposed her to a lot of drugs and a predatory manager while eventually destroying what might have been some worthwhile friendly/professional relationships. We know a bit more about Cherie Currie's life, meanwhile, like what kind of people her parents were, at least, even if they're never named in the film (even the credits list them as "Cherie's Mom" and "Cherie's Dad").

As for the other Runaways, like I said: short shrift. Stella Maeve is great as Sandy West, the band's original drummer, but Scout Taylor-Compton's Lita Ford is barely acknowledged until she's used as the film's resident bitch in the film's last act, a role you might have expected Kim Fowley to fill, but whatever; I have to admit I was a little miffed when Ford, probably the most technically-proficient member of the band and a fantastic guitarist on any scale, was denied a "where are they now" title card between the last shot and the credits).

Some of this reminds me of another problem with biopics, before I get to the really good thing about Runaways: you wanna know how this movie ends? It ends with Joan Jett starting a new band and becoming a star, and Cherie Currie pretty much retiring from the music biz. Also, not that it's in the movie, but Sandy West went on to drum for several other bands before dying too young and Lita Ford became a Metal Goddess for awhile before voluntarily going into semi-retirement to do the family thing for awhile and seems to be having a pretty good life. Point being, of course, that you know how the biopic ends: Johnny Cash gets old with June, Howard Hughes goes batshit insane, Malcolm X gets murdered in public, and Amelia Earhart... okay, bad example, but you get the idea.

So a biopic really lives and dies by its presentation, acting, direction and cinematography, mostly. With regard to the latter two, Runaways is okay, sometimes getting really interesting visually and other times just sort of being there.

But the acting is pretty phenomenal. I've had little use for Dakota Fanning in some of her past roles--okay, maybe that was mostly War Of The Worlds, in which just about everybody was useless, but still--but she hits all the right acting notes perfectly as Currie and could easily have carried the film alone. But she doesn't have to: Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett is an uncanny facsimile of the real deal without veering anywhere close to being a mere impression, perfectly capturing Jett's swagger and intensity. They're great, they really are, and I've already mentioned how good Stella Maeve is as Sandy West. Michael Shannon is duly villainous as Kim Fowley. And Alia Shawkat....

Well, this gets us back to the whole "biopic while people are alive" bit, above: The Runaways' various bassists didn't cooperate with the production1, so Shawkat gets stuck with a semi-anonymous composite character, "Robin," who doesn't get to do anything. The result is one of the movie's more grievous offenses, wasting a fine actress who, for instance, routinely stole scenes from some of the best comic and character actors in the country on Arrested Development. It would've been swell if they'd used her for something other than a placeholder.

Anyway, the movie wasn't a waste of time or money, and it isn't bad although it definitely isn't great. I'd say it's a rental, particularly in light of the fact that the theatre I saw it in had the volume cranked a little low, and the very best part of the film--the soundtrack, which is excellent except for the inclusion of a treacly Don McLean cut2--is something you might enjoy most if you have a decent sound system as part of your A/V setup and can crank that shit up.

1The Runaways had five bassists over the course of their brief career, the two best-known (at least as members of The Runaways) being Jackie Fox and Vicki Blue. (The band's original bassist, Micki Steele, who left before The Runaways' first album was recorded, went on to become a Bangle in the '80s.) Fox and Blue co-produced their own movie about The Runaways, the documentary Edgeplay, which I haven't seen but has been highly-recommended to me.

2Apparently Cherie Currie loved "Vincent." I thought it was awesome and meant to be amusingly ironic the first time the tune shows up, since the film has Lita Ford immediately trying to turn the radio off when it starts playing--but then they feature the song again, later, apparently seriously. Oi.

In addition to cuts by The Runaways and Jett, the soundtrack also features cuts by The Stooges, Bowie, The Sex Pistols, and others. "I Wanna Be Your Dog," in particular, is a track that really needs to be played loud whenever possible.


vince Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 9:45:00 AM EDT  

I'll add it to my "rent when it's available" list.

The problem with biopics of bands, and there haven't been all that many, is they're usually based on the story by one band member, or two at most. This tends to give other members the short shrift, and obviously only one point of view.

The Runaways still hold a special place in my musical heart, as do both Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Thanks for the review.

Eric Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 10:02:00 AM EDT  

Yeah, it would be interesting if somebody did an ensemble-cast style biopic that floated around the bandmembers. Unfortunately, if those members are alive, you end up with the kinds of ego issues that may have factored into a band's breakup in the first place.

beemodern Monday, April 12, 2010 at 7:17:00 AM EDT  

Thanks! I'll add it to my Netflix queue of 500, but move it up the list.

When my daughter was three-years-old, we videotaped Joan Jett's MTV New Year's Eve concert. (VHS and Beta were still slugging it out back then, that's how long ago it was.) Well, my daughter went crazy for Joan Jett, and she watched that concert almost every day for months and months and months, before it was accidentally/on-purpose taped over finally. Every time I agreed to turn it on, she would run to her bedroom, put on a sleeveless tee, and race back out to dance and sing along in front of the TV, pumping her little fist in the air, yelling "Louder! Louder!" along with Joan Jett.

Joan Jett rules.

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