As a huge fan of '70s punk rock, '80s new wave and rock n' roll in general, not to mention Joan Jett and her seminal all-girls rock band, The Runaways, I was very skeptical when I heard that the girls from "New Moon" would be portraying Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in the new film, "The Runaways," based on the band. However, I'm here to tell you that much to my surprise both Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, respectively, nail their roles in this film and the result is a completely well realized, well-crafted, hardcore rock n' roll film. Fanning leads the film with a solid, commanding and mature performance proving that she has what it takes to go from a child star to a serious adult actress. Meanwhile, Stewart's gritty supporting role grounds the film in a stark reality and her adolescent attitude along with her mature wisdom brings the magic that was Joan Jett and The Runaways to life.
Much like "Boogie Nights," the film perfectly captures the mood and tone of the '70s, however in contrast to that film, here we have a much more dangerous look at that decade. Gone is the flash and sparkle of the disco era and what is left instead is the beginning of a counter-culture known now as ... punk. Through both of the main characters but especially Joan, we get the feeling of not belonging and of desperately wanting to be apart of something, like most youth go through. Joan turns to leather jackets and electric guitars while Cherie turns to dressing like Ziggy Stardust for a school talent show. But eventually their love of rock music and the desire to be somebody leads the girls to meet one man that would change their lives forever ... Kim Fowley. Fowley is a legend in the music world and is almost as famous for his musical accomplishments as he is for his bad attitude and violent demeanor. Actor Michael Shannon gives an exceptional performance forcing the madness of the man come out while still making him human and vulnerable so that he can be relatable to the audience.
The Runaways is based on Cherie Currie's memoir "Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway," and it follows, Jett and Currie, as they rise from rebellious L.A. street kids to rock stars of the now legendary group, The Runaways, that paved the way for future generations of girl bands. Both girls are struggling with adolescents and destructive family lives when they first meet and are brought together by a mutual love for rock music, a desire to fit in and to need find their place in the world. Eventually they meet punk rock icon Kim Fowley and with a few other girls form an all-girl band they call The Runaways. The group falls under Fowley's Svengali-like influence, which turns them into an overnight success and a family of rock n' roll outcasts.
Fowley gives the band a chic, baby-doll image that is in stark contrast to their raw rock n' roll talent but quickly earns the band a name for itself on the up and coming punk circuit. While the girls are all friends at first, tensions start to rise when Kim begins to give more attention and focus to Cherie and her Bowie meets Bardot/sex kitten look rather than Joan and the real heart of the band ... the music. As fame and success begins to change the girls, Cherie falls deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol while Joan retreats to her music eventually leading to the demise of the band and Jett's famed solo career. Now Cherie will have to make a choice, stay in the band and continue to go down this dark and dangerous road of drugs and rock n' roll or leave it all behind forever and live a quiet, normal, suburban life.
The film's real achievement is in the performances of its three leads. Oscar nominated actor Michael Shannon has made quite a name for himself over the past few years as a talented actor to keep an eye on and he doesn't disappoint in this role. The actor deserves real credit because with a character as legendary and famously over-the-top as Fowley was it is easy to get lost in that performance and the actor is able to keep it grounded no matter how outrageous the character is behaving in a scene. If you've ever seen an old interview with the real Fowley then you'd understand what an exceptional achievement Shannon's performance really is.
Now you can say what you will about Kristen Stewart but the "Twilight" actress really nails the part of Joan Jett in this film. I think Stewart is a solid actress and she seems to get better and better with each film but The Runaways is by far her best performance to date. Stewart seems born to play Jett, capturing just the right amount of angst, smarts and sass to make the character come alive. I was especially impressed with the actress' final scene where she displays just the right blend of vulnerability and regret for the moment. Equally strong is Fanning, who really carries the film in a lot of ways. Her performance is really what we as an audience gravitate towards and she does a wonderful job of showing both her characters own vulnerabilities as well as her desperate desire to fit in and be loved. I think we've known for a long time from her previous work that Fanning was a very accomplished young actress but I think this performance will put the nail in the coffin for that. Fanning gives a mature and sophisticated performance in this film and in doing so shows that she has transcended herself from a child-actor to a mature and capable young actress with some of her best work still ahead to look forward to.
It's easy to forget but this film really takes place right in the middle of the Women's Rights Movement and it was a time when female musicians were really just used as back-up vocalists and certainly were not allowed to play screaming guitars and bang on loud drums in a punk band. No one else was doing what The Runaways set out to do and it changed music forever. If there had not been a Joan Jett and The Runaways breaking down the barriers that they did there would literally never have been a Madonna, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, The Donnas or even a Lady Gaga, so think about that? The movie is fast paced and the music of the film (not just The Runaways' songs) is perfectly positioned to illuminate the period of time that the movie depicts. The look of the film is also remarkable and director Floria Sigismondi paints a picture of the '70s that we haven't quite seen in film before, a strange and lonely time past the "peace & love" of the '60s that gave birth to a generation of angry and lost kids that would eventually create the punk movement. In the end, The Runaways is in some ways a perfect rock n' roll film and delivers everything you would expect from such a movie but it is the music, the performances and the story of this film that makes it a must-see for any fan of rock n' roll and the punk era of music.