Kristen Stewart has style and substance in hard-rocking 'The Runaways'
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; C01
Forget "Clash of the Titans." A major clash of teen cultures is likely to occur in theaters this weekend, when fans of the young adult "Twilight" movies check out the franchise's star, Kristen Stewart, in the 1970s musical biopic "The Runaways." And they may need to brace themselves for a touch of whiplash as they watch neo-gothic heroine Bella Swan turn into the original Riot Grrrl.
As Joan Jett -- co-founder of the germinal all-female band the Runaways and quintessential rock-and-roll survivor -- Stewart all but banishes Bella's lip-biting angst and self-abnegation. With her hair razored into a glam-rock shag, hunched into a black leather jacket and playing guitar with a defiant snarl of a prizefighter, Stewart's Jett may speak softly (or hardly at all), but she carries a big ax. She's the somber, tomboy counterpart to lead singer Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, who the band's skeevy producer describes as "a little Bowie, a little Bardot."
Even though the original band included three other players, Jett and Currie dominate "The Runaways," which in its schematic structure resembles "VH1's Behind the Music" reduced to haiku. But the film possesses an undeniable, punk-rock brio, and it sneakily captures the audacity the band came to represent.
For "Twilight" fans, the Runaways' iconic power may be difficult to grasp. (And for many of those girls' Twimoms, it may be difficult to remember.) But when they first appeared on the scene in the mid-1970s, a 17-year-old girl playing electric guitar was akin to the mythical fish riding the bicycle. In the film, Jett gets that message from a guitar teacher who insists on her learning "On Top of Old Smokey." She doesn't listen, and winds up approaching Los Angeles producer Kim Fowley (a scenery-chewing Michael Shannon), who immediately sees commercial possibilities in an all-girl rock band.
"What's our product?" this stud-collared Svengali warbles. "Sex. Violence. Revolt."
"The Runaways" focuses on the group's early days and brief, meteoric career, during which Fowley's vision of jailbait nymphets (the musicians were all teenagers) never quite jibes with Jett's implicitly feminist vision of a band that rocked hard and happened to be female. (For her part, Currie just wanted to be onstage, in platform heels and frosty eye shadow.)
If writer-director Floria Sigismondi's compressions and elisions result in a film that reduces the narrative to a series of impressionistic, emblematic scenes, she uncannily captures the Runaways' time and place, from Southern California club culture to a musical era in which Deborah Harry and Patti Smith were fronting their own bands.
While Currie and Harry presented themselves either as super-sexualized or subversive versions of the blond bombshell, Jett and Smith appropriated a bold, androgynous swagger. Taken together, they redefined what was possible for women in a corner of pop culture that had, with few exceptions, belonged entirely to men. If this isn't the revolt that Fowley was talking about, it's a pop-culture insurgency that "The Runaways" celebrates with infectious exhilaration.
Sigismondi adapted "The Runaways" from Currie's memoir "Neon Angel," which accounts for why Currie gets most of the narrative space in the film. Filmgoers who have watched Fanning grow up in such vanilla fare as "Uptown Girls" and "The Cat in the Hat" will no doubt be shocked by watching her, in a corset and fishnet stockings, belting out a libidinous version of Currie's signature hit "Cherry Bomb." Even more unsettling, and sobering: Fanning was 15 when she made the movie, the same age Currie was when she joined the band.
But even though "The Runaways" is mostly a chronicle of Currie's rise and sad fall into substance abuse (although she does receive the film's best "where are they now?" postscript), it's Jett who emerges as the film's strongest character. Her focus never swerves, even as she's liberally indulging in the drugs and sexual pleasures of the time (she introduces a bandmate to the joys of masturbation and has affairs with women, including a tender liaison with Currie).
And, it turns out, Jett's cipher-like presence in "The Runaways" is well suited to Stewart's own diffident, wary style and mix of masculine-feminine cues. Jett's perseverance, survival instincts and sheer chops seem all the more refreshing for being portrayed by an actress best known for a character who sees surrendering her humanity as the most supreme form of self-expression.
Even with its rote structure and lurid flameouts, "The Runaways" presents a cheering, even inspiring portrait of female friendship; its final scene may be the best in the movie, offering a healing note of acceptance and solidarity. What's more, it presents a heroine who, faced with a choice between immortality and self-preservation, dares to insist on both. It might just make all those "Twilight" fans wish that Bella had Joan Jett around to help her get her groove back.