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Column Fri Mar 19 2010
Hey everyone. So, I've been in Austin, Texas, for the last week or so attending the SXSW Film Festival. I've done 17 interviews and seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 movies (when you read this I'll be at the tail end of the my time at the fest). As a result, I've missed a few screenings of things opening in Chicago this weekend, including Repo Men, The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Neil Young Trunk Show at the Music Box, which might hurt most of all. And I'm not done traveling. I've got a couple more short jaunts that will force me to miss films like How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans. And while I've seen many other films opening in the coming weeks in advance, this week in particular I've been pretty useless to you, with one notable exception. Read on, and I'll see you when I have my feet on the ground.
As much as I'd been led to believe that The Runaways was going to be a document of the short-lived, all-female rock band seen through the eyes of its most famous member, Joan Jett (played with convincing edge by Kristen Stewart), the film is, in fact, told from two perspectives--Jett's and that of underage singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning in a career-altering performance). My knowledge of The Runaways is limited at best. There were two of the band's songs featured in the film I recognized, including their biggest hit "Cherry Bomb." But I believe that a bio pic or documentary to any musical performer should not be a love letter to that person or group. The job of a film like The Runaways is to convince those ignorant of their music (like me) that these are people worth paying attention to, exploring, and maybe even collecting. And for the most part, first-time feature writer-director Floria Sigismondi (whose background is in music videos, although the film thankfully doesn't take on that rapid-fire editing approach) has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful examination of a band that needed to exist in the 1970s landscape.
The Runaways were put together as something of a novelty act by star-maker Kim Fowley (played with slilthering deviancy by Michael Shannon), who seemed to see the band (which also included future metal goddess Lita Ford) as jailbait, would-be porn stars singing about woman-on-top sex. Partially inspired by Currie's autobiography, the film makes it clear that Fowley's decisions about the members of this band were as much (maybe more) about their look and style than any musical talent. If the film is true, he spotted Currie in a club, dug her Bowie-esque facade (although he compared her to Brigitte Bardot), and threw her in a room with the band.
In many ways the film is more about Currie's journey than Jett's or anyone else's, primarily because she goes through the biggest transformation. Joan begins and ends the film a tough, bisexual rocker, whose talents as a guitar player and songwriter led the band through some pretty exciting times. But Currie was a golden-child object of desire despite being 15 years old when she was brought in as singer. She came from a broken family in Encino, and it didn't take long for the lifestyle to wear her down. The amount of drinking and drug taking in The Runaways is staggering. And yes, any male watching this film will have two thoughts: "My goodness, Dakota Fanning is hot" and "Yes, I'm a creep for thinking so." Kim Fowley would be proud. Fanning doesn't just look good, but she embodies Cherie's adventurous spirit and her clear belief at certain points in her life that she is in way over her head and growing up far too fast. In many ways, The Runaways is a tragedy set to fantastic music.
The movie kind of blazes past the band's creative process. One of the film's best scenes is Cherie's audition, during which "Cherry Bomb" is written. Shannon really shines in this sequence as he conducts and inspires each band member to tap into something spontaneous and loaded with raw sexual energy. But while the film revels in the band's excesses and relentless work schedule, we don't get too many scenes of the members building the band, helping each other improve, or creating new music. Maybe moments like that aren't as cinematic as taking drugs or being chased by Japanese fans, but it might have improved the film a bit. I also feel a little bad for the actresses playing the other members of the band--Stella Maeve, Halloween's Scout Taylor-Compton, and "Arrested Development's" Alia Shawkat--who are basically reduced to background players for most of the film. One supporting player that doesn't get the short shrift is newcomer Riley Keough (Lisa-Marie Presley's daughter) as Cherie's sister Marie, who gets left behind to take care of their drunken mother (Tatum O'Neal). Keough is particularly strong as Cherie's partner in crime prior to Cherie joining the band and promising to bring Marie on the road with her only to unapologetically abandon her.
I don't mean to gloss over Stewart's work, but the truth remains that all of you who claim that her one and only acting move is tugging at her hair should a) get your head out of your ass, and b) go see this movie to be proven wrong. No hair pulling here (unless it's by another woman). I remain unmoved in my strong belief that outside of the Twilight films, Stewart is one of the best actresses of her generation. I don't know how you can watch a film like Adventureland or Into the Wild or the little-seen The Cake Eaters, and think she's a poor actress. And let me add this, I think she's getting better and I can't wait to see her Sundance offering Welcome to the Rileys. Once we 12-step her through these "vampire" movies, I think we'll all be in a better place. Amen.
Until that time, enjoy her getting to put on a growly face, strap on a guitar, and rock your world alongside Dakota Fanning, who is making it clearer with each new role that her days of playing little girls is likely behind her. She's incredibly strong in The Runaways, and the movie works as a fine document of these trail-blazing women who blaze trailed out just as it was at its brightest.