At first glance, this is a story of a girl who wants out and a girl who wants to rock out and how their relationship forever changed the identity of rock and roll. The movie begins with a drop of menstrual blood that falls onto the pavement and runs down Cherie Currie’s leg as she stands on a public street in the middle of the afternoon. A rather traumatic, yet symbolic, moment for women everywhere that also evokes feelings of guilt and responsibility. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the irrevocable way rock music was changed when it tasted the blood of female rage. If only the people in charge of this film were willing to get some of that blood on their hands, this might have been the film to set fire to the celluloid ceiling.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the story of an all girl band and their passion, resistance, and struggle to be heard (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains!). Writer and first time feature film director Floria Sigismondi stated that she wanted to focus on the relationship between lead singer Currie and founding member Joan Jett, to make it more personal. However, as any card carrying feminist will tell you, the personal is not without the political. The screenplay is based on Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, in which she recounts being raped at the age of 15 by her sister’s boyfriend, prior to meeting Jett and joining The Runaways. This same boyfriend is present in the beginning of the film however the sexual assault is completely ignored. To present this strong imagery of womanhood and its consequences, but without the context of the actual assault is infuriating. It completely reinforces the culture of silence around rape and sexual assault, not to mention leaves out an extremely important aspect of Currie’s story. There is no doubt that casting Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, as Jett, and Dakota Fanning, as Currie, altered the primary audience and thus the film’s storyline. The narrative being pushed by Sigismondi is that she didn’t want the film to become too serious, yet in forsaking to acknowledge the political, the personal connection to the film is disrupted. If a 15 year-old can be raped why can’t a 15 year-old in the audience not be given some awareness of it? Currie’s experience of being violently forced into her first sexual experience affected not only her personality, identity and mental health but her relationship to the music, her band mates and her fans! By leaving this out, the character is under developed and fragmented, and so is the film. In contrast to the overwhelming attention given to Currie’s character – her sister has a larger role than most of her band mates – there is zero back-story to Jett. When we meet her she is already guitar in hand, shaggy black hair, asserting her desire to wear black leather.
Still, this was not a terrible film. The highlights include all of the performance moments, especially their first gig at a house party where Jett deflects beer cans with her guitar and Sigsimundi’s experience as a music-video director plays well in making the montage moments more tour diary than time kill. Fanning aptly embodies Currie’s fervor on stage, most notably in a pre-Madonna bustier-wearing performance of “Cherry Bomb,” but is a bit too delicate in the dialogue between. Stewart’s haircut and fierce one-liners are enough to rid the audience of Bella Swan, but she has yet to break out of her “acting” shell. Her lack of confidence pollutes all her work, as does her inability to push her own envelope. Make it bleed honey! Keeping it all rolling is a stellar performance by Michael Shannon as producer Kim Fowley, crudely preparing the band for the male-dominated world of rock and roll. Sadly, drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) are hardly given their due and bassist Jackie Fox was left out due to legal issues leaving Whip It’s Alia Shawkat, as the fictional bassist Robin, severely under-cast.
The fact that this was based on actual events is perhaps what worked against the movie’s authenticity. What was ultimately disappointing about this film was the realization that sexist values and imagery still permeate Hollywood. That, even in a true story about real, raw, angry, vulnerable, sexual, talented girls, studios and filmmakers are going to ignore the hard truths and ugly story lines in place of a more comfortable version. To make this the raucous and riotous story of The Runaways this film needed a lot more grrrl and a lot less Hollywood. While it definitely was enough to raise awareness of pioneering women who rock, it was not the homage I was hoping for nor the feminist riot I dream of.