I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll

papervilkorunaway I Love Rock n RollTHE RUNAWAYS
RUNNING TIME 109 minutes
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED bY
Floria Sigismondi
STARRING  Dakota Fanning,
Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon

2 Eyeballs out of 4

eyeball I Love Rock n Rolleyeball I Love Rock n Roll

Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll—it’s fun, isn’t it? As long as there is music to be cranked up on the stereo, so will it always be an alluring fantasy for angsty teens (and grown-up ones) to imagine themselves as strutting, spitting, shit-kicking frontmen; muppety drummers; or thrashing guitar heroes. Let’s face it, the success of Rock Band didn’t just come from nowhere. But as previous biopics and VH-1’s Behind the Music specials have told us time and time again, there’s a familiar arc to these things: young, scrappy upstarts try to make good, find success, get poisoned by success and drugs and interband squabbling, and end up either dead or someplace sad talking about the glory days (or, you know, Axl Rose). One of the many frustrating things about The Runaways—and there are plenty of problems—is just how good the subject matter is that it tackles. First all-girl rock band! Joan Jett! Cherry Bomb! Nineteen seventy-five and all the glittery eye-shadow that goes with it!

The film, directed with a gritty eye by Floria Sigismondi, was surprisingly successful when it came to casting. Kristen Stewart, as Joan Jett, channels all of her weird, fidgety Twilight energy into a compelling, tomboyish figure of a girl/woman who just wants to rock as hard—or harder—as her male counterparts (Ms. Jett also served as an executive producer on the film). And Dakota Fanning, all grown up from her Dr. Seuss days, is believable as jail-bait Cheri Currie—half David Bowie, half Brigit Bardot, picked by Svengali-like producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) for her looks and style before even going through the trouble of finding out whether she could sing. The film is at its best during its dreamy, druggy montages: watching the girls struggle to prove themselves and, because of their teen ages, figure out whether they’re actually badass chicks, or just playing dress-up.

But it’s when the music stops that we run into problems. For starters, there are so many questions left unanswered: While we get a peek into Ms. Currie’s backstory (left-behind sister, flaky mom, drunk dad), just where the hell Joan Jett came from remains a mystery (raised by wolves?), and ditto for her simmering rage (she pees on another band’s guitar. Rock ’n’ roll!). Ms. Fanning, born in 1994 (read: shriek), uses those spooky, old-soul eyes to show world-weariness, but when it comes to delivering dialogue, both she and Ms. Stewart seem to be students of the Robitussin school of acting: monosyllabic clunkers delivered as though half-asleep. Not so with the scene-chewing Mr. Shannon, who seemed to be acting in an entirely different movie altogether. We see Currie and Jett do drugs and make out a few times, but the movie does nothing to explore whatever complications that brought—if any—to their onstage and offstage relationship and only hints ever so briefly at what it did to the band dynamic. And speaking of the band, what about the other three members? Each gets a handful of dialogue (oh, Lita Ford, you always get the shaft!) but don’t even make it into the here’s-what-happened notes at movie’s end. One could argue that the Runaways paved the way for the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of the world—this movie hints at a really fascinating story but just barely scratches at its glittery surface.

svilkomerson@observer.com