Adolescent coke binges and girl-on-girl makeouts! Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways doesn't quite rub the collateral of jailbait rock stardom in your face, though at times it comes dangerously close. Based on the book Neon Angel, penned by Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie, the biopic examines—as only biopics can—the rise and fall of a musical venture, Joan Jett's first as lead guitarist before she went on to her more formidable career. Uneven performances and a formulaic narrative get a boost from the skillful direction of Sigismondi.
The Runaways' story begins with Jett (Kristen Stewart) living in L.A., rejecting both acoustic guitar lessons and girls' clothing. Once properly leather clad, she marches up to producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and coerces him into helping her start an all-girl rock band. Enter doe-eyed, Farrah Fawcett-haired Currie (Dakota Fanning), a 15-year-old who lip-syncs Bowie at her school talent show and sneaks off to underage bars. When Fowley decides she has the right look for the band's frontwoman, she quickly abandons her alcoholic father and twin sister. Commence with the inevitable roller-coaster ride: the record-label sign, the allure of sex and drugs, the Achilles'-heel ego of the lead singer.
Underage drug use and underwear strutting? Maybe in 1975 this was controversial, but there's no way it will faze a 2010 audience any more than a grocery-store tabloid will. This film should have been more about female revolution and less about juvenile revolt. The music and the carefully stylized shots give the movie a decided edge—Sigismondi hails from the world of MTV videos—but it just as quickly falls back into predictability. The hair and the costumes feel completely genuine, but Fanning and Stewart have to work twice as hard to fit into them for an audience used to seeing these actresses in the Twilight films.
To be fair, Fanning was given a tall order in portraying both the less-interesting girl and the lead role. But what's dragging this film down is her performance, or lack thereof. Many critics will mistake Fanning's blank expressions for some sort of subtle talent, just as Fowley appraised Currie for merely having "the right look." But looks only sizzle if there's a fire behind them. Fowley, who serves as the band's Svengali, tries to bring the fury out of Currie at an audition, writing especially for her the hit song "Cherry Bomb." The film tries to convince us that Currie blows up, but Fanning never does.
This makes it that much harder to sympathize with Currie's immaturity, leaving one wishing the story was told from Jett's perspective. Stewart does a much better job as Jett, for whom angst is a natural state of being. Gone are the boy troubles which made Stewart so grating in Adventureland and the Twilight films. Her rebellious sulking feels charged. Stewart and Fanning both provide their own vocals to an impressive degree, but only Stewart gives the impression of a rocker. (Jett, who co-produced the film, said she could have sworn Stewart's singing was her own.) Fanning's onstage energy is lackluster—and whether this is an accurate depiction of Currie is up to a better music historian than I, but either way, it stunts the picture.
The Runaways evokes other music biopics like Ray and Walk the Line. But it also embraces the urgency and excitement of the punk-girl movement, while accurately depicting the abuse of girls in a male-dominated business. One moment Sigismondi shies away from is the Currie-Jett love scene, which is too showy and ethereal to depict what's actually going on, literally and emotionally. As in most biopics, the lust is for glamour, not human connection, and like Fanning's Currie, the film steps up to the mic of revolution, without enough chops to follow through.
is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.