WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS
The Runaways had a typical teenage dream: they wanted to be rock stars. But unlike most restless adolescents with that vague hunger, they actually came close to superstardom. That’s not a story you hear every day, especially not when the musicians are female and the music is an aggressive jumble of glam, punk, and straight-ahead rock.
The rise and fall of this pioneering all-girl band is a tale worth telling, but the film The Runaways isn’t quite up to the task: it misses opportunities for fun and reduces heartfelt dreams to hackneyed drama. Luckily, Kristen Stewart is more than able to fill in the gaps and remind us why we love rock ‘n’ roll.
The Runaways depicts the formation, first tour and subsequent unraveling of the band. To writer/director Floria Sigismondi, "band" really means guitarist Joan Jett (Stewart) and lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) — guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) are minor characters, while bassist Robin (Alia Shawkat) is entirely fictional. Most group scenes, including rehearsals and concerts, are brief and focus more on each girl’s interactions with controlling, crazed manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) than on internal band dynamics.
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Maybe the lack of focus on the band as a whole shouldn’t be a surprise — after all, the screenplay is
based on Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story — but you’ll be forgiven for expecting a broader view from a film that has the band’s name as its title.
Instead, it’s all Currie from the opening scene, and startlingly so — the first shots are a visual "cherry bomb," in the form of drops of Cherie Currie’s menstrual blood falling to the ground. Cherie’s not prepared for the sudden onset of womanhood, and it’s the first event in a passive/reactive pattern that emerges as the film progresses. She doesn’t make things happen; life happens to her.
Currie doesn’t even seek out the Runaways, though she does love music (especially David Bowie). The band’s (male) manager Kim Fowley finds Currie in a club (Rodney Bingenheimer‘s ramshackle and historic English Disco, a fudging of facts but a nice nod to ’70s glam culture). Cherie has just the Brigitte Bardot–esque look the band needs, at least according to Fowley. But as Kim promises to make her a star, Cherie just waits and stares. Her genre is more girl bland than girl band.
The real rock stars are Joan Jett and Sandy West. They approach Kim Fowley independently, eager to jam and write songs. Unlike Currie, they don’t worry about their families or any other part of life outside of rehearsals and concerts: the band is family, and they’re never more alive than when they’re on stage. At least, that’s what we think we know about Jett and West: viewers have to fill in a lot of details.