Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Runaways (2010)

Rock biopic The Runaways is a special film. It's my favorite Dakota Fanning movie, but I like it for different reasons, so it would probably still be one of my favorites even if it didn't star Dakota Fanning. But, I'm glad that it does. Not simply because she's my favorite actress, but also, casting her as Cherie Currie was truly an inspired choice (and the same can be said for Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett). I can't imagine anyone doing a better job in the role than she did. This film really is the trifecta - it stars Dakota Fanning, it's a good movie, and the subject matter is right up my alley!

But it's a funny thing: after watching over a dozen movies starring Dakota Fanning over the past few weeks, this is the one role where I was least conscious that it was Dakota I was watching throughout the movie. (Needless to say, I was, however, still drawn to her fantastic performance and amazing looks). There could be any number of reasons for that. You might say it indicates that her acting is better in this movie than all the rest. Or maybe it's because she's not playing the "precocious brat" (not my personal choice of words) type of role she's best known for. She does seem to have a lot more innocence in this role, in spite of the fact that, while still just fifteen, she gets mixed up in a world of typically adult vices - namely, all the sex and drugs that come with rock stardom.

But if you ask me, I think it might have to do with the vintage '70s look Dakota takes on in this movie - particularly her feathered hair (which is right for the role, but I like Dakota's normal hair better) and heavy makeup. Or, even the fact that Dakota is not playing a fictional character this time, but an actual person, for which there exists a context independent of Dakota's performance. Lastly, it might simply be the fact that Dakota is no longer the child we all remember her as being. Yep, it's remarkable the change that has occurred in the three short years (or so) since Dakota's other sexy music-related role - Hounddog, in which she discovered the blues. And in The Runaways, she gets to experience the rock 'n roll lifestyle.

"Listen. Rock and roll is a bloodsport, 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!'"

So who were The Runaways? They were the band that launched Joan Jett's music career. If you ask eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (inspiringly performed by Michael Shannon in the film), they were a conceptual rock project. Joan's idea was to start an all-girl rock band amid a scene utterly dominated by men. Kim Fowley picked up on the ingenuity of that idea and ran with it. Joan wanted an outlet for her musical talent, and Kim seized the opportunity to essentially pimp the band on the novelty of it being an all-girl rock group. And the group thrived on that short-lived balance between the two forces of women's lib, and women's libido. But it wasn't a stable balance.

The women's lib aspect is what makes the band historically significant. The Runaways didn't last long, but they did prove that girls could rock. They weren't actually the first all-girl rock group, as Suzi Quatro, who was a large inspiration on Joan Jett, had a band with her sisters about a decade prior. But the Quatro sisters (in their band The Pleasure Seekers, later Cradle) didn't attain the recognition that The Runaways did - Suzi was better known for her following solo career, with a backing band that included guys. But the important thing is that there was substance to The Runaways' rock act - real, quality music performed with real rock 'n roll energy - and that made an impression.

"What the hell are you wearing?"
"I'm thinking with my cock."
"More like, boner."

"You're basically ready for the peep show circuit, all you need's a porn name."
(Uh, hello? She's the Cherry Bomb!)

Nevertheless, the band's image was saturated with the ooze of women's libido. This had something of a two-pronged effect - attracting the attention of men by tapping into their sexual fantasies, as I'm sure Kim Fowley anticipated, but at the same time giving people a chance to criticize the band as a novelty act - chicks who were worth looking at but not listening to. Clearly, this wasn't true, as they were a very competent band, but that didn't stop people from tossing around those complaints. Maybe they were just feeling insecure, seeing teenage girls performing what they considered to be a man's role, but you could expect that hearing comments like that would lead the band members to start resenting their sexualized image.

"Pretty soon you'll be opening for us."
"Opening your legs, maybe!"

I'm pretty sure this issue has been exaggerated to enhance the dramatic conflict in the climax to this film adaptation of The Runaways' story (which is based on lead singer Cherie Currie's memoir, Neon Angel - which I highly recommend). This is somewhat unfortunate, because from my perspective, I view women's libido as being part of women's lib, and an integral element of The Runaways' formula. In the film, tensions in the band come to a head based on a sexualized photoshoot engineered by Kim Fowley as a clever publicity stunt. Cherie, who is hardly to blame for falling into Kim's trap, as it were, is berated for publicizing her crotch instead of the band's music. Granted, there's also an element of jealousy between the rest of the band, who, to varying degrees, resent Cherie being the face of the band, despite not necessarily being the best musician in the group. But the intent is clear when Joan (via Kristen Stewart) bemoans the fact that those sexy pictures are all the band's going to be remembered for. (It's notable that the pictures from that photoshoot, taken for publication in a Japanese magazine, are a lot harder to find today than the band's albums).

"They just showed up at my house with cameras, what was I supposed to say?"
"You could say I'm the singer in a band, not Linda fucking Lovelace."

But it doesn't have to be one or the other: sex or the music. After all, the success of The Runaways was a combination of factors, including both sex and music. If they weren't so sexy, would they have been as successful? How many genuinely good bands fall by the wayside because they can't find an audience? It's true that a novelty act will grow stale, but a song without a hook doesn't get much airplay. You're allowed to have both - style and substance; in fact, it's the groups that have both that tend to go the farthest and be remembered the longest. And what's wrong with having a sexy image, anyway? Especially in the sleazy world of rock 'n roll. You're right, it would be selling the band short if a fan liked them only because they were hot - but the band would similarly be selling people short for assuming that if a fan likes their looks, then they're not sophisticated enough (or too distracted) to appreciate their musical talent.

Case in point: yours truly. I think the band is totally hot - both the real band, featuring Joan Jett and Cherie Currie and the others, and the movie band, starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart and the others. And I also think they're an amazing band, from a musical standpoint (by the way, Kristen and Dakota both did a great job singing their parts in the film). What more proof could there be than this: during the movie, I had to pause it and go pick up my guitar to check the fingerings I use to play some of The Runaways' songs after watching the way Kristen played them (I can't say how accurate her playing was supposed to be, but I do believe she was coached by Joan Jett on the set). So you see, my sexual interest in the band doesn't have to cloud or obstruct my interest in their music. In fact, it makes me that much bigger a fan, because I can enjoy both listening to them and fantasizing about them, too! And that's just my point, the sexual aspect is a bonus, not a liability. There is often a thin line between rock gods and sex gods. That goes without saying for male rock stars, so why should it be different for female ones? (That's where the inconsistency of anti-sex "feminism" comes into play - it's female empowerment only so long as you suppress your female sexuality, which is, after all, nothing but a tool the patriarchy uses to subjugate women. Bullshit.)

As good as this film is, it's not above criticism - though I would argue that its flaws are insignificant compared to its better qualities. The biggest complaint a Runaways fan might have is the inaccuracies in the story. But seeing as this is a motion picture dramatization, that really comes with the territory. You shouldn't watch The Runaways expecting to get the real story, you should watch it to have a good time. If you want the former, check out Edgeplay, which is sort of a documentary via interviews with the various members of the band (excluding Joan, unfortunately). Another complaint fans might have is that in spite of the movie's title, The Runaways focuses on Joan and Cherie to the exclusion of the rest of the band - and even Joan's later success is glossed over, so that it's less of a Joan Jett biopic than a Cherie Currie biopic. But that's because it was based on Cherie's memoir, after all (perhaps they should have used Cherie's title - Neon Angel - for the film, but you can't argue the strategic/publicity advantage of calling it The Runaways). But if you can get over these quibbling facts (they don't bother me), The Runaways is a whole lot of fun. And as you could expect from a rock biopic, it has an outstanding soundtrack!

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