Tuesday 21 November 2017

Movies: The Runaways ***


Paul Whitington

Some of you, bless your cotton socks, may be too young to remember her, but in the early 80s Joan Jett achieved a measure of fame as the frontwoman and guitarist of a heavy metal-lite group called, not especially imaginatively, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Before that, though, when she was still in her mid-teens, Joan had an earlier and much bumpier brush with fame from which she did well to recover, and that is the not-unpromising story behind this music-laden drama.

Written and directed by rock video specialist Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways has attracted most attention for its casting, which has raised two interesting questions: will Dakota Fanning be able to make the transition from child to adult actress? And will Kristen Stewart be able to act at all outside the rarefied atmosphere of a Twilight set? The answer to both questions is yes, and the fine performances of both girls are the most worthwhile elements of an otherwise hackneyed film.

Dakota Fanning is Cherie Currie, a bright but withdrawn 15-year-old Los Angeles schoolgirl who distracts herself from her dreadful home life by dressing up like her glam rock hero, David Bowie. Her father's a hopeless drunk and her mother's a self-absorbed actress, and Cherie's life is bereft of focus until she meets a leather-clad, gum-chewing, 16-year-old rock chick called Joan (Stewart).

Joan Marie Larkin hails from a similarly dysfunctional background, and has been sneaking into bars and rock concerts since she was 13. She worships Suzie Quatro and wants to form the world's first all-girl rock band. And when she approaches a sleazy agent called Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), he decides she might be on to something.

When Joan and Fowley spot Cherie at a club, they like her look and recruit her as a singer. And after some pretty shaky rehearsals, the all-teenage, all-girl rock band The Runaways is formed. They sound pretty good, all things considered, but when they start touring California's dives they get a very rough reception from chauvinistic male groups who think the only females in the vicinity of a rock stage should be groupies.

Fowley manages to land them a record deal and, after cutting their first album, the girls jet off to Japan, where they're amazed to discover they're the next big thing.

But Fowley has been using them for his own ends and exploiting the more unsavoury aspects of Cherie's sexy schoolgirl image to market the band. And, as the pressure grows, a dangerous rift develops between an increasingly out-of-control Cherie and the rest of the girls.

The Runaways is an interesting little period vignette, and what the film does well is evoke the experience of being a teenager in the mid-to-late 70s. What it singularly fails to do, however, is avoid the many clichés to which any film involving rock music is prey.

Apart from the loves scenes between Stewart and Fanning, which have attracted predictable prurient attention, the film has nothing new to say about the nihilistic hedonism of rock bands. As he has proved in films such as Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon is a fine actor with a uniquely skewed charisma, but his role here is a one-dimensional cartoon of the double-dealing rock manager.

And while we find out plenty about what made Cherie so vulnerable, we learn very little about what drove Joan on, which is a pity as she's the film's most likeable character.

The Runaways gets a lot of things wrong then, but more than a few right, and a fine soundtrack complements the powerful performances of both Fanning and Stewart. The latter is an eerie ringer for the young Jett, and never lets the rock chick posturing obscure her character's underlying vulnerability. And Fanning is unsettlingly good as a girl chewed up and spat out by the remorseless conveyor belt of popular music.

Irish Independent

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