SXSW Review: The Runaways

By  · Published on March 18th, 2010

The Runaways has plenty of components working against it. It’s an independent film that stars Kristen Stewart, who since her work in Twilight has been dismissed by many of us who avoid that series like the plague as a textbook example of the overexposed and the undertalented. It’s a rock music biopic, a genre which usually manifests itself as a set of unavoidable, interchangeable clichés. Also a problem with rock biopics is seeing conventional, bankable stars trying to come across as anti-establishment, which typically rings corny and false. Lastly, the film, like the band itself, involves a problematic oversexualization of underage females, and there often exists a fine line between representations of exploitation and exploitation itself. I can’t say that The Runaways rises above all these potential handicaps of the rock biopic, but it certainly surpassed what I expected from it and proved to be thoroughly entertaining despite any of its apparent inadequacies.

The Runaways concerns the quick rise and fall of the first successful all-female rock group. A group constantly confronted by the male musicians that fear them, The Runaways utilized inspiration from the punk movements of the time (notably The Sex Pistols) to establish a place for all-female rock acts in the future. Dakota Fanning plays Cherie Currie, the lead vocalist who – appropriate for the genre of music and their particular influences, lacks any formal vocal training or range. Stewart plays Joan Jett, the band’s guitarist and (a)moral center of fuck-it-all rock attitude. Michael Shannon plays their manager, Kim Fowley, a character for whom eccentric hardly holds a candle to his lightning bolt of a personality.

The great thing about music biopics is that it doesn’t matter what type of music the figure(s) at the center of the film performs, the same rise-and-fall set of triumphs and challenges remains uniform. The Runaways is no different, following a connect-the-dots formula of the rock biopic and embracing nearly every trope in to book. From the band’s humble beginnings to the parents who either have substance abuse problems or aren’t present at all to the quick rise to stardom to the band’s own substance abuse problems to their inevitable fall from grace, The Runaways meets expectations and never diverts from even the most rigid formulas of the genre (and often runs through the conventions rather quickly, rarely allowing time for the film to breathe), but I’ll be damned if the movie isn’t a breeze to watch along the way.

The Runaways is in no way a great film or even a notable film of its genre, but it is an infective burst of energy propelled by its fast pace and fun music. One may cringe when the film’s dialogue and the cast’s performances delve into the most hackneyed of tropes (like this exchange between Stewart and Fanning as the band starts to fall apart, F: “I can’t do this anymore,” S: “If you weren’t aware, we’re cutting a record here!”), but it’s easy to overlook and forgive when getting swept up in the manic energy of it all. Music video director Floria Sigismondi employs lively, engaging visuals as first-time feature director, which often clouds the fact that her writing could use some honing. At least she knows, really knows, how to film music.

Performances vary. Stewart is only sometimes convincing as a punk-rocker, but like her turn in Adventureland, she proves here that her talent contains more range than the Twilight series would suggest. Fanning is discomfitingly convincing as an underage teen all to eager to become a sex symbol, and the fact that she’s underage in reality combined with The Runaways being a follow-up to her controversial turn in Hounddog and her more subtle sexualization in the more mainstream action film Push may draw questions regarding where on the line between exploring exploitation and exploitation itself the film lies, especially in the context of her recent career. Lastly, Shannon, a standout talent in almost anything he’s in, is given permission to take it to eleven here, and while his mania and peculiar performance decisions are always entertaining to watch, a bit of restraint might have helped him come across more like a fully realized character than what often delves into footage of Shannon simply having a really, really good time on set.

What I do appreciate in the film’s story, however, is how it depicts a band self-awarely manufacturing their own image. Shannon’s Fowley often utters lines akin to calling The Runaways the most revolutionary rock band since The Beatles, but unlike the ham-fisted “something’s a-happenin’ here” forced contextual significance bestowed within the narratives of many a musical biopic (and as parodied in Walk Hard), Fowley’s sentiments read as cynical and opportunistic, intently creating and forcing importance upon the first female rock band – assembling the band through appearance, for instance, instead of talent – rather than allowing their collaboration to organically evolve. You get the sense that this is really how bands form and resonate within the zeitgeist, as opposed to some romantic cultural necessity for a certain band at a certain place at a certain time. The Runaways is fun, if immediately forgettable.

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