Sunday, July 25, 2010

March 25, 2010: Psychobabbling about ‘The Runaways’

Rock & Roll biopics are intriguing to fans of the featured artists, but the way the majority of them fall into the expected groove generally leaves us none-the-more enlightened and our wallets ten bucks lighter (or, if you live in the NYC area, thirteen bucks lighter). I keep coming back to these movies expecting one to stray from the rags-to-riches-to-puking on the floor of CBGB format, but very few do. The best of these types of pictures might take an impressionistic approach to an artist’s life, like Todd Hayne’s enigmatic Dylan-tribute I’m Not There or his “what if” reinterpretation of David Bowie’s relationship with Iggy Pop in Velvet Goldmine. Others focus on specific periods in a band’s career, like Backbeat, which covered the pre-fame Beatles, specifically zeroing in on the relationship between John Lennon and mock-bassist Stu Sutcliff, who is generally reduced to a footnote in Beatle biographies. Another good one was The Hours and the Times, Christopher Munch’s speculative snapshot of a weekend Lennon spent with manager Brian Epstein in Spain circa 1963. By giving us some insight into little-known people and situations in the history of our most famous band, these films subverted the “Behind the Music” stereotypes of Rock & Roll biopics. They also threatened to forever typecast Ian Hart as John Lennon.

Floria Sigismondi’s new film The Runaways can be viewed in two different ways. As a history of a pioneering, all-female horde of cherry bombers, the film hits all the expected beats. We see the girls (and they were girls when mephistophelian manager Kim Fowley put them together in the mid-‘70s… eldest members Joan Jett and Lita Ford were only 16 or 17) rising from poverty and familial discord to tour the U.S. by bus, make it huge in Japan, do drugs, suffer the usual “artistic differences,” hit rock bottom, and go their separate ways. The thing is, the majority of folks aren’t really familiar with The Runaways, yet everyone knows who Joan Jett and Lita Ford are. So The Runaways can also be viewed on Backbeat-terms as a portrait of a little-seen period in Jett and Ford’s career. Of course, even if the viewer approaches the film in this way, it still covers the usual biopic territory.

All this being said, I still think The Runaways is worth seeing. Sigismondi does a fine job of capturing the gritty grunge of the ‘70s, apparently shooting the picture on digital video. This craggy aesthetic helps the film sidestep the off-putting glossiness of movies like La Bamba and Cadillac Records, which never represents the filthy music well. The Runaways is one of the few Rock biopics that seems like it was made by someone who actually understands Rock & Roll. Equally important is the cast. Kristen Stewart, who was such a bland presence in the bland Twilight, is a very convincing Joan Jett, mastering her slouched stance, darting glare, and raspy yowl. Dakota Fanning is also good as Cherie Curie, but the most marvelous performance is that of Michael Shannon, who is not only a dead ringer for bug-eyed Kim Fowley but perfectly mimics the guy’s eccentric mannerisms and loopy inflection. As Curie has said in recent interviews, the film (which is based on her book Neon Angel) whitewashes Fowley, who is presented here as verbally, but not sexually, abusive. So those wanting the full Runaways story will have to look elsewhere, which is pretty par for the course for a Rock & Roll biopic.
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