Less a groundbreaker girl band biopic than say, a prequel to the as yet to be conceived if ever Joan Jett story, The Runaways gets the hark rock sound right, but goes soft when tapping into those teen temperaments or taking the musical temperature of the times. Not to mention Jett herself hanging around as executive producer, usually the kiss of death when it comes to objectively fleshing yourself out as protagonist in a movie. Which may explain the wrongheaded, diversionary focus on messed up sidekick Cheri Currie instead.
Dakota Fanning as fragile Currie and Kristen Stewart’s pre-punk untamed tomboy Jett are bold, edgy impersonations as they disappear into their respective out of control real life personas, casting their own self-conscious notions of celebrity aside for the duration. But the problem is that the material is pretty thin and verging on afterschool special derivative, and hopelessly paling in comparison. Though it’s refreshing to savor Stewart taking time out for a bit from that clinging female unrequited codependent leaning all over male magnet vampires and werewolves, which has been progressively wearing out its welcome.
Seemingly crafted as a series of dramatic shortcuts that rarely pause to delve into core personalities, The Runaways is an uneven clash of nicely telegraphed raw sound and timid storytelling. Jett turns up nearly out of nowhere, blasting on the scene with her ragtag girl band and uncompromising attitude to play music in the strictly male rock world her way. Hooking up with bad news, foul mouthed grownup tyrant mentor Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), Jett is paired with lost and found waif Currie by Fowley, whose lurid instincts sense in the impressionable fifteen year old, a profitable tabloid Lolita sexpot in the making. Or as he cynically declares, ‘this isn’t about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido.’
And in fairly quick succession, Currie checks out of a dysfunctional family where her drunk dad is dumped for leaving water rings on the furniture, and Mom takes off for Indonesia with a new boyfriend. And while Jett waits in the wings between stage numbers to hit on her not unwelcoming bandmate, Currie gets ever deeper into drugs and sexually suggestive magazine layouts, when not going to bed with her roller skates on after partying hard all night. But by the time everyone figures out they’re products being packaged to fill mainly Fowler’s coffers, Jett has retreated to singing to herself solo in her bathtub back home, and Currie can barely navigate a shopping cart through a supermarket in lingerie and stacked heels in search of vodka, before disappearing into rehab.
More cartoonish and episodic than anything else, when not projecting an extended price-of-fame, pubescent pity party, The Runaways is likely to leave musically uninformed audiences without a clue. And for the fans, a documentary with authentic concert footage, would have been the more satisfying way to go.