Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Runaways

There is a point about halfway through the movie when the initial excitement about being on stage in front of an ecstatic audience and then drinking and doing drugs in-between while on the road completely wears off, and what stays behind is the dissatisfaction of repetition and doing nothing but living up to an image. Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” is anything but subtle except for this one instance, where the movie manages to capture a specific mood, a state of mind, and I’m not even completely sure that this was the intention because just a second later it relies on the explicit image of an overdose, a complete break-down, and a violent freak-out by Joan Jett in the studio.
Like most movies that  try to capture pop cultural history by focusing on a specific icon, “The Runaways” focuses on the well-known artefacts: the costumes, the way Cherie Currie and Joan Jett interacted on stage, the “ground-breaking” idea behind the band, crafted by the over-powering manager and mentor Kim Fowley: An all-girl band (“Jail-fucking-bait, jack-fucking-pot” he proclaims after finding out that newly discovered singer Cherie is only fifteen) making it in a man’s world, in front of a potentially hostile audience, claiming the right to become rock ’n’ roll icons.
The thing is: “The Runaways” isn’t exactly about the band. It’s about Joan Jett and Cherie Currie (it’s based on Cherie’s autobiography and was co-produced by Jett), paralleling their development before they are even in the same band. Joan is working hard on becoming a rock ’n’ roll icon even before she ever lays eyes on Kim Fowley, demanding to be given the same leather jacket as a male costumer in a clothing store after being sent to the section for females and instead putting a bag full of coins on the counter, defying a guitar teacher who insists that “Girls don’t play the electric guitar”. A friend/girlfriend tells her “My brother used to say: like don’t like girls who are tough, he says, guys like girls who are soft and flirty.” While Joan is the musician even before ever playing on stage, Cherie is the performer: She goes on stage in a school’s talent show, wearing David Bowie make-up, getting through an entire song while being booed and bombarded by her peers. All of this, the film argues, is a preparation for what comes next.
It’s hard not to compare “The Runaways” with other efforts in capturing pop cultural history on film. Ultimately, the claim to “authenticity” is only vaguely relevant because there are so many different perspectives and stories – it would be impossible to claim that a two-hour-film tells the complete story. I actually think Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” is a brilliant film that doesn’t even bother to name it’s subject matter: you don’t need to know whether the young man on film stumbling through the last days of his life is indeed Kurt Cobain, because nobody knows what happened Cobain’s death, the only thing we have is the legend (the well-placed artefacts in the movie are the sun glasses, the striped shirt, and even to a lesser extent Kim Gordon). In “The Runaways”, Joan Jett happens to recognize and meet Kim Fowley at a club.
Joan: “I’m Joan Jett. I play guitar. Electric guitar.”
Kim: “Joan Jett, that’s a cool name, you guys go a demo? No. No guys. I wanna start an all-girl rock band.”
Kim: “Well. Maybe I am the luckiest dog-father after all.”
The film so far has worked hard to establish the environment for all of Joan’s and Cherie’s ambition – a world that doesn’t let girl on stage unless they are holding an acoustic guitar and look pretty (the only female idol Joan references is Suzie Quatro). Joan and Cherie both don’t articulate this (they aren’t 18 year old women’s studies mayors, but teenagers with complicated families), but, or at least the film argues, act against the conventions instinctually and with every fibre of their being. Kim, on the other hand, recognizes a business opportunity because nothing sells better than revolt in a pretty package. He introduces Joan to Sandy West and if the film was aptly titled then their initial cooperation would have been a story on its own, but instead Sandy West only gets a couple of lines in the rest of the film (the bassist, played by Alia Shawkat, gets none). The story only begins when Kim decides that the band needs another ingredient, which he points out in a book with the title “Blondes”: he orders Cherie Cherrie out of a catalogue in a way, casts her because Joan and Sandy are talented, but they lack the certain something to make The Runaways sellable.
Kim: “I like your style, a little Bowie, a little Bardot, a look on your face that says I could kick the shit out of a truck driver.”
“The Runaways” isn’t explicitly about the power relationship between Fowley and the band, but it aptly points out that everything that happens now is shaped and choreographed by his vision of a band that isn’t about “women’s lib, but women’s libido”. He imprints an image on them; he shapes them according to his own idea. “The Runaways” isn’t about self-empowerment at all because they still operate in a man’s world, and they will until the band breaks apart.
What could have been a movie about the circumstances under which female musicians perform in the music industry (presumably, little has changed since 1975), is far more successful as a portrait of a relationship between Joan and Cherie. There is a tangible attraction between the two even before they are introduced and as the band takes off, Joan becomes somewhat of a caretaker of Cherie, a supporter even when the other band members start to turn on her. They share their broken families (Joan’s strangely absent, Cherie’s mum leaves for Indonesia with a new boyfriend and she leaves her twin sister Marie with their alcoholic dad) and, since they are the only two band members actually explored in the movie, this drive to break all these conventions that told them they couldn’t do something in the beginning of the movie. Their relationship is what works best in the movie, mostly because Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning have good on-screen chemistry.
My favourite scene once again reminded me of a different movie altogether: Personally, I think “Control” by Anton Corbijn is probably one of the best example of a biography that succeeds, and it’s because it picks the right moments. Ian Curtis, deciding that he wants to make music after being to a Sex Pistols concert. Curtis, sitting in his room, smoking, writing “She’s Lost Control” (adding the “‘s” as the last stroke). It’s enjoyable to watch the band perform this material (am I in the minority thinking that they do a pretty good job covering those songs?), to follow how they are framed, and how the drugs slowly become more relevant than the music itself (the ultimate trope) – but the thing that I find far more interesting and intriguing is how the songs are written, what the motivation and inspiration behind writing music is (in that case, the inspiration for performing is summed up perfectly with “I wanna be where the boys are”). Regardless whether it’s actually what happened, the couple of minutes the film spends on Kim Fowley and Joan Jett writing “Cherry Bomb” impromptu specifically for Cherie Currie, followed by Kim explaining to her how to sing it (“Listen: rock ’n’ roll is a blood sport. It is a sport of men. It is for the people in the dark. The death cats. The masturbators. The outcasts, who have no voice, no way of saying ‘hey I hate the fucking world my father’s a faggot fuck you, fuck authority, I want an orgasm.’ Now growl, moan. This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido.”) are brilliant. I spent years of my youth convinced that “Cherry Bomb” was an original song by Olympia band Bratmobile, and when I think of the early 1990s “just grab an instrument and play” idea of riot grrrl, I’d probably think of Patti Smith, X-Ray Spex and The Raincoats first – “The Runaways” is inconclusive about the relevance of the band (although in retrospect, Fowley’s assumption that “The Runaways have the most chance of any group I’ve seen to do what the Beatles did: to tear this world apart.” hasn’t really worked out so well), because the thing that is achieved, at the end of it, is Cherie Currie surviving and Joan Jett founding a band that allows her, presumably, to work more self-determined and empowered than when she had to follow Kim Fowley’s vision (although it’s Cherie who breaks out of the cage first, proclaiming ““you’ve been speaking for me this whole time, you get in the fucking booth.”
Kim: “What, Cherie? I’m sorry. Tell me seriously, are you tired?”
Cherie: “Yeah.”
Kim: “Yeah. Are you bored?”
Cherie: “Yeah, actually I am.”
Kim: “Guess what, you are not allowed to be tired, you are not permitted to be bored. You are an employee, you are my property, and you will do as I say or you can go and fold tacos with your better looking sister.”
“The Runaways” is also about what happens when it ends; As Cherie walks out on the band, Joan smashes all the equipment in the studio, watching Kim’s enthusiastic reaction, realizing that everything she does, every outbreak of emotion, just plays into her image, that “The Runaways” is essentially exactly the created and cast and tightly controlled “conceptual rock project” Kim speaks of eight years later.
Joan: “Your family? Who? No really, your mum in Indonesia, or your drunk dad? Are we not your fucked-up family now?”
Cherie: I just want my life back, you know.
Joan: This is my life.
As Joan’s, who has a better claim on authenticity because halfway through the movie she says “Publicize the music, not your crotch”,  new songs with The Blackhearts play on the radio, Cherie, now working in a baking-supplies-shop of all things, listens, calls into the radio station and says “I’m not dead or in jail”, and they both just smile vacantly.

"The Runaways", 2010, directed by Floria Sigismondi, featuring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Johnny Lewis, Tatum O'Neal

PS: While “The Runaways” doesn’t succeed in everything it tries, I still wish that all those crazy 14 to 19 year olds who are convinced that there is nothing more romantic and relevant for a girl to do is swoon over two guys and suffer from unfulfilled desire until she’s married would see this, and have an epiphany that changes their lives profoundly. This is a movie about girls trying to (partly unsuccessfully) break out of the boundaries of gender stereotypes, and OF COURSE IT’S A PERIOD PIECE.
/rant over.

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