It would be easy to blow off The Runaways as yet another band movie. Do we really need another band film? Is there a demand for this kind of thing? Why wouldn’t people just watch Almost Famous again? Let me guess the plot: a struggling band tries to get famous but in the process faces problems with drugs, money and getting along. But The Runaways is a different film in one key way.
The Runaways isn’t just any band, it’s a band of young girl. Therefore, a lot of the issues of fandom and vice take on a bit of a different context due to the perceived gender roles. The band centers upon the relationship of bad girl Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and the docile, shy Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and from there becomes more than just about the music but the social roles of women.
But beyond that, it’s the same old story building to the same old conclusion but the film does a decent enough job taking us there. What makes the film intriguing is the way in which these females have to struggle more than their male counterparts due to the radical way in which they present themselves as male equivalents in the rock industry.
There’s also a dark edge to their rise to fame because of their producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). His bad mouth, salacious attitude pushes the band into being a lot more controversial and provocative. The band starts with a group of under-aged girls and one of the big things Kim pushes for is sales through sex appeal, walking a dangerous line.
Part of what makes Kim’s character work so well is Michael Shannon. This film is yet another chance for him to shine as one of the finest actors in the business. His character is a complete jerk, a skumbag and a pervert but Shannon finds a way to make his crassness endearing, to give him an enthusiastic, involving personality that draws the audience in. It also doesn’t hurt that every line he has in the film is gold.
The film centers on Dakota Fanning’s role and she pulls it off well. The way her character develops means she has to sell both the vulnerable and the raw and she gracefully transitions to that point through her performance. Kristen Stewart is also excellent. Say what you will of her in Twilight, but she’s undeniably compelling as the bad girl.
The film also has a strong suit for the cinematic. A lot of low lights and odd perspective help feed back into the radical nature of the music and the band, creating an atypical aesthetic. Plus, there’s something undeniably alluring abut the way the scenes are lit and the pacing, crafting more of the alluring image that Kim built around these girls.
The ultimate problem is that for all this film does different and for all its strong points, it ends up boiling down to that tried and true narrative that just isn’t as fun to watch after you see a handful of these. And the problem is that the film relies on the narrative to draw us into this instead of the characters. Some might love the band or the music as well, but the film needs more than that. the film does stand out enough from the crowd due to some great performances and the nature of the band, but it falls short of a lot of its potential.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing