The mid-'70s were such a period of ferment and transition in rock'n'roll that it's a wonder no one has made a movie about the Runaways before now.
Even more surprising: that someone would make a movie about them and make one as mundane and formulaic as The Runaways. But that's what director Floria Sigismondi has done.
The Runaways were an all-girl proto-punk band, emerging from the L.A. glam-rock scene that eventually was subsumed by punk and disco, the great diverging trends of the late 1970s. Neither movement ever really died, despite the Death to Disco movement and the seeming self-immolation and cooptation of punk by synth-heavy, hair-centric new wave in the early 1980s.
But Sigismondi's film, despite getting the soundtrack right, offers neither context nor content to make the story memorable or even distinguishable from other films of its kind. In essence, it's another tale of social misfits who band together out of a love of rock'n'roll. Except, in this case, they're teen-age girls. They hit it big, then throw it away in squabbles over egos and problems with drugs.
The movie is lucky to have Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, ostensibly the stars of the band. Fanning makes Currie vulnerable, unhappy and susceptible to the numbing attraction of drugs. Stewart gets the rebel sneer of Jett, the rockin' energy and disdainful pose. But neither of them are served by a script that's awash in clichés and generalities and short on specifics about what went wrong.
Most of that can be captured in two words: Kim Fowley, played with demonic intelligence and energy by Michael Shannon. When Shannon is onscreen, the movie comes alive because Fowley was the man who discovered, assembled and all but created the Runaways.
Fowley is the film's most interesting character, but he's treated as a device, a throwaway figure who sets the plot in motion before being shunted to the side. Instead of dealing with his machinations - which launched the band, exploited it and ultimately brought it down - the film turns Fowley into an expository figure. He tells the girls what's going to happen, then disappears while Sigismondi shows it happening in literal, uninteresting ways.
The Runaways were a brief, incendiary phenomenon that paved the way for the Bangles, the Go-Gos and other girl rockers (though no one ever mentions Fanny, the first female rock band to release a major-label album, in 1970). The Runaways' music had the raw quality of punk before punk broke through in the U.S. And Fowley was the man who figured out what they should be, what their appeal was and how to market them.
That he was also a shady operator whose financial shenanigans eventually led to lawsuits all around is barely mentioned. Instead, this turns into a soap opera about Cherie and Joan - their alleged love affair, Cherie's unhappy home life (an alcoholic father, a neglectful mother) and eventual drug abuse. Even Joan Jett winds up as a kind of bystander in this movie.
The Runaways features a great soundtrack of mid-to-late '70s rock and pop, from the breakthrough to the cheesy. If only the movie showed that much range or energy.