A girl-group biopic with some familiar riffs

Posted: March 19, 2010

'I like your style," says the scenemaker to the androgynous Lolita with the gold shag and silver hot pants. "A little bit Bardot, a little bit Bowie." The time: 1975. The place: Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, where glam-rockers and glitter groupies converged, and frequently conjoined, on L.A.'s Sunset Strip.

The scenemaker? Kim Fowley, the bombastic music producer who in 1975 was known, if at all, for having produced novelty songs like 1960's "Alley Oop." The jailbait? Cherie Currie, whom Fowley introduces to would-be rocker Joan Jett, before casting both (alongside three other L.A. chiclets) as the girl group the Runaways.

But it was Currie, the blond vocalist in the white satin corset, and Jett, the raven-haired guitarist in black leather, who defined the group's look, sound, and pansexual appeal when they exploded on the music scene with their hit "Cherry Bomb." Packaged by Fowley as a novelty act - hot underage girls with guitars! - these teenagers in heat were not "about women's lib," as the best line in Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways has it. They were "about women's libido."

Sigismondi's evocative portrait of Currie (Dakota Fanning), Jett (Kristen Stewart), and their stage sisters is a strange bird. On the one hand, it's a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place, and boasts mesmerizing performances, including that of a tranced-out Fanning, a prickly Stewart, and an outlandish Michael Shannon as Fowley.

On the other, it adheres slavishly to the too-much, too-soon template of nearly every other music biopic. In this case, there's something awfully literal about watching the group famous for the refrain "Neon angels on the road to ruin!" as just that. And not much more.

Sigismondi, the Italo-Canadian director of music videos for Marilyn Manson and the White Stripes, has a confident grasp on the film's atmospheric look. She's sympathetic to these heroines who reversed the dynamic of rock as something boys did and girls watched.

And she has a remarkably nuanced perspective on these young women who, in exchange for self-expression and emancipation, submitted to a little old-fashioned exploitation. As Sigismondi frames it, Currie is the white angel and Jett the black one, gyrating in the gray zone between teenager and adult. So what if they are purveying their wares if it allows them to pursue their pleasures?

It is possible, after all, to advocate girl power and also wish that Fanning, 15, didn't serve herself up as a piping-hot strumpet.

(Although the sex shown in this R-rated feature is soft-core, its explicit language is hard-core. An instructional soliloquy about using the 1976 Farrah Fawcett-Majors posteras a sexual aid is hilarious, but so detailed that I wouldn't want my 13-year-old, who worships Stewart as the erotic but chaste Bella in the Twilight movies, to see this until she was 30.)

I liked The Runaways in passages, but not on the whole. Despite Sigismondi's fresh eye, feminist perspective, and rapport with actors, The Runaways feels like a long-form music video, recycling every trope from the doomed-rocker handbook.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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