The Runaways
d. Floria Sigismondi / 2010 / USA / 106 mins
Screen 4 @ Apollo Piccadilly Circus (London, UK)

Production still from The Runaways

The infernal/eternal catchup continues with a film released into UK cinemas back in September, Canadian photographer, filmmaker and music video extraordinaire Floria Sigismondi’s feature-length directorial debut, The Runaways.

Following the exploits of a rag-tag gang of young ladies in 1970s California, fashioned into a rock ‘n’ roll sensation by shamanic impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the film focuses largely on the band’s dual-pronged attack of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kirsten Stewart), and blends the coming of age narrative with a long and troubled tradition of rock ‘n’ roll biopics.

Based largely on Currie’s autobiography but wanting to pay equal tribute to Jett (the real driving force of The Runaways), Sigismondi’s film is something of an uneven effort, with flashes of real brilliance (both stylistically and dramatically) and more than a few instances of confused (and confusing) characterisation and narrational focus. Thus, whilst the film absolutely nails the muted palette its 1970s period urban setting, the plotting is remarkably messy at times (and not even in an anarchical sense, which may have at least been acceptable given the subject matter).

Most notably, The Runaways suffers heavily from a sheer contradiction of viewpoints, constantly shifting its focus from Cherie Currie to Joan Jett, yet never really managing to reconcile the two narratives. As a consequence, the decision to focus primarily on Currie means that there is a distinct lack of backstory about Jett who remains (in the film as in real life) the true star performer of the piece. Although this might be an inevitable consequence of the film’s adaptation from Currie’s autobiography, it still lends The Runaways an inevitable sense of dramatic compromise.

If that wasn’t enough, the film loses its narrative way even further when the band signs a record deal with Mercury and the audience is presented with an unprecedented (and unexpected, and unnecessary) slice of narration from Kim Fowley, followed by the obligatory, horribly cliched, montage of ‘spinning newspapers’ and bold-type magazine headlines. There are also number of reversions to music biopic cliche, a slather of hefty drug taking and mid-teen sexual provocation, and yet the film somehow manages to end up feeling all a little tame.

That said, it’s enticing to imaging what Sigismondi might have achieved with the same script but without a $10m budget and Hollywood starlets, and both she and the financial backers should certainly be praised for not shying away from the R certificate dealt out by the MPAA. But perhaps, given more freedom to experiment and without the notoriety of the band itself, Sigismondi might have been able to deliver something truly astonishing. And there are certainly elements of such a film threatening to break out of The Runaways at times.

There are also almost nothing but positives in terms of performances, with Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon both great in their central roles, ably assisted by a solid supporting cast. The most astounding performance in The Runaways, however, is reserved for Kirsten Stewart, who absolutely inhabits the role of Joan Jett. It was refreshing, to say the least, to watch someone that I had previously considered to be a fairly unremarkable performer, completely leave their own persona to one side and bring a larger than life character like Jett to the screen with such assurance. I very much doubt it will happen, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she emerged in a few months time as a possible Oscar nominee, even if much of the US media focus has been on Dakota Fanning’s continued attempts to shake her cute child-star image.

The Runaways is not without its flaws, sure, but the sheer energy wrought upon the screen by both director and stars, as well as the pure, unadulterated force of will served up by the original batch of female teeny-rockers on which the film is based, ensures that it remains an intriguing, interesting and highly watchable slice of rock biopic cinema.

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