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"The Runaways" Review

Influential 1970s jailbait rocker girls The Runaways get the biopic treatment in this film fronted by Twilight's Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and a rapidly growing up Dakota Fanning as singer Cherie Currie. The all-female band - who also launched "Kiss Me Deadly" artist Lita Ford - is lesser known then their poppier Eighties sistren The Go-Gos and The Bangles, but for some female rockers even more seminal.

However, if you don't come into the movie with an operational knowledge of the band, you're likely to be confused or unimpressed by The Runaways as writer-director Floria Sigismondi (working from Currie's autobiography Neon Angel) makes the same mistake many rock movies make in focusing more on the surface style than underlying musical substance. (Velvet Goldmine was another example which seemed to believe the most important thing about glam-rock music was being gay.) The look of the film is spot on with Oscar-nomination worthy costumes and period correct cinematography, but despite a strong trio of performances from Stewart, Fanning and an awesome Michael Shannon as impresario Kim Fowley, it plays as more a series of impressionistic scenes of drugs and debauchery.

We never really get much of a feeling for the lives of anyone else in the band - even Joan beyond an early scene where a guitar teacher tells her girls don't play electric guitar - and tertiary characters like the unnamed guy who seems to be Curie's boyfriend when she's not canoodling with Jett are mere props. Forget about learning anything about how the music was created and like many movies in this genre, they never tell us what year we're in and how much time has passed from one stage of their rise (and fall) to the next.

Other reviewers have seemed skeeved out about Fanning's, um, budding nubility and it's interesting to consider that they're freaking out about the 15-year-old Fanning all sexed-up in a corset and fishnets when the real Currie was a 15-year-old girl all sexed-up in a corset and fishnets singing about how she's a "cherry bomb." When Fanning was announced for the role, I was thinking she was too bright-eyed and round-faced for the role - she's extremely talented, mind you, and I've referred to her as "the Jodie Fosterbot 2.0" in a review before - but promo photos and the trailer showed she'd nailed the look and the final film delivers a very good performance. Last year's superhero flick Push showed she was growing up and she is very hot here in a way that Chris Hansen could use as a Rorschach test. (Namely, if a guy looks at her and doesn't say something like, "Hey, she's really hot...oh, wait, she's just a kid still. Jeez, I'm a bad person.", then they'll need to have a seat.)

Since I'm not a 15-year-old girl, I haven't seen Stewart in those sparkly unicorn vampire movies and frankly I still think of her as Jodie Foster's son in Panic Room (I know, but I've met people who didn't know she was a girl) and even though I like her type of girls (i.e. slightly tomboyish girls like Starbuck and Boomer on Battlestar Galactica), she didn't do anything for me in the lame Adventureland last year. However, here she absolutely nails the look and attitude of Joan Jett and is thus thermonuclear H-A-W-T. (As I told my girlfriend after the screening, "You know how I know she captured Joan Jett? Because for the first time ever, I really want to f*ck her.") Even though she's the most famous ex-Runaway, Jett is a supporting character here and thus as underwritten as the rest. But Stewart manages to give us a fleshed-out portrayal when she could've easily coasted with a shag haircut, a sneer, and a lame Leather Tuscadero impression.

As I watched the film, I tried to imagine what someone knowing even less than I did about the Runaways - I'm more of a Go-Gos fan - would learn from The Runaways and it's not much other than these girls did a lot of drugs, a couple of them seemed to have a semi-titillating lesbian affair, and, oh yeah, they played some music in between the family drama and ennui. As a biopic or rock music expose, it fails to deliver; as an impressionistic take on the era, it works, but it's mostly surface; stuff you could look at old magazines and videos to see. Since it's mostly about Currie, a more honest (if less marketable title) would've been Neon Angel.

Score: 5/10. Rent the DVD.

After the screening, Cherie Currie came out and did a brief Q&A which you could tell she'd heard most of the questions a zillion times before. Now 50, she looks great and the heavily femme crowd loved her and reacted noisily to the news that she'll be touring with Joan Jett this summer, though there is little hope for a full Runaways reunion, especially since drumer Sandy West died a few years ago of cancer.

For those in the Detroit area, she'll be doing a book signing for the new edition of Neon Angel at the Birmingham Borders Books on Thurs. April 8 at 7 pm.


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