Long before groups like The Donnas began singing proudly about independence and sexuality while rocking like with reckless abandon, a five-piece from Los Angeles called The Runaways blazed a trail that no one thought was even possible. Flaunting confidence, spirit and poise, the all-female group daunted many and opened the eyes of others. At their core, drummer Sandy West and singer/rhythm guitarist Joan Jett assembled The Runaways out of sheer desire to put a female stamp on rock and roll. The duo paired up at the suggestion of ’70s Hollywood Svengali Kim Fowley, who helped shape their career and find their sound. Not long after, they banded with Cherie Currie who took over lead vocals during their rise to notoriety. The group imploded a mere four years after being founded, but left an indelible impression on the music world, and ultimately heralded throughout the last three decades as opening doors for women eager to rock as hard as any boy. Now, the group has been given a proper, stellar Hollywood depiction in director Floria Sigismondi’s aptly titled The Runaways. The film stars Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley.
Sigismondi’s telling of the story deftly avoids getting lost in the myriad details of the band’s brief existence. She explains, “I wrote it for Cherie and Joan and Kim; I decided to make the film about them. And I think that helped.” Pooling from several resources and the first-hand accounts of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, Sigismondi had to navigate the inconsistencies between the varying accounts carefully. “It’s been politically challenging since I walked in, being about real people that are alive. Just the subject matter alone, you’re always playing that fine line between people’s feelings, fans’ recollection of them, authenticity but also, it’s a story, you’ve gotta have a theme. So I had to be true to that theme.” One such challenge was famed bassist Jackie Fox who had to be removed from the story entirely. “I never had her rights,” the director says. “I never had Jackie’s rights. She’s a lawyer.”
Instead, the story focuses in on the relationship between Jett and Curie, showing how they forged a deep, understated friendship, and also at times a love affair. As Fowley (played with malevolent glee by Shannon) barks at them to perform with confident and cocksure enthusiasm, the group quickly finds themselves signed to Mercury Records and on tour. While on the road they dive into a rock star world of decadent sex and drugs. The two both press forward unaware of the toll the chemicals and celebrity will have on their emotions and health. The film renders the evolution with artful honesty, one that more timid viewers might find off-putting. In regards to how more conservative audiences might react to the explicit elements of the film, she states, “I was dancing this line between a lot of things, but also, if this was a PG movie, I would’ve been completely unfaithful to The Runaways and to those girls. I think that the thing that made it so instrumental in their lives was how young they were. And they were thrown into this world with no parental guidance, plucked away from their families, on tour, could you imagine? Even now? You’re at that age where you just want to try everything, never mind growing up in the ’70s.”
Fanning and Stewart tear into their characters, carrying their performances with unnerving care and focus. The two actresses deliver this focus through nuanced gazes, their eyes delivering the details with stunning accuracy. And in the recent tradition of authentic musician biopics where the actors actually sing their parts (Walk the Line, Crazy Heart), Fanning and Stewart truly perform as Currie and Jett would have. Fanning’s dedication to this authenticity won Sigismondi over in casting. “By the time I got into casting and I heard she was really interested and met her, she has got this glint in her eye. She really wanted to do it, both girls really wanted to sing and play their instruments. That for me, it felt like a real commitment you know?” What’s more, Stewart already appeared to have a bit of Jett’s personality in her. “Even though she had long flowy hair…she had a sort of tough-shy quality about her, one which Joan has.” The two girls snarl and wail, singing the songs the group made famous–“Cherry Bomb,” “Queens of Noise” and “Dead End Justice”–with enough sex appeal and determination to transport viewers to the time when The Runaways’ antics were positively courageous.
Even though the two leads nail the characters and their aggressive tendencies, each of them approached their character with sensitivity. Kristen Stewart tried to play things to the letter, commenting, “As much as Joan wanted to give me freedom and have it be natural, I couldn’t improv stuff as easily as I could on other movies. I didn’t like to fill in the blanks. I didn’t likes to answer questions; I was always just asking them. You should always feel like your character is real.” Dakota Fanning dug into Currie’s exodus from the group. “We talked about why it all ended for her, why she wanted to leave,” Fanning explains. That’s pretty important in the movie for my character.”
Each actress finds the center of the character with her own unique precision. Stewart’s take on Jett has her at a constant boil, bubbling up with anger as if she’s ready to fight at any moment, while Fanning delivers Currie as a percolating crescendo, explosively falling apart at the end of the tale.
“I think Joan’s desire to make the sound that she makes and to be who she is was so strong especially when she was that age, like you said you’re bubbling with whatever you are,” details Stewart. Referring to the scene in the film where Currie lip synchs a David Bowie song in front of her school and is booed, “If I went to high school and did the Bowie thing and people threw paper… I don’t know…” (Frames a pose as if she would freak out and laughs) She continues, “It wasn’t hard at all, because we are that age. I’ve never…” (Pauses) “I can really relate to people thinking that you’re weird. I so admire and love these women, that I could get just as angry as they probably got in high school because I’m so defensive of them.”
Fanning adds, “Cherie grew up in the shadow of her twin sister. Marie was always the prettier one, the more popular one, and Cherie was always the outcast. Someone that went to high school with them said he walked by this beautiful girl and she was so nice and smiled, and then he saw [the other] girl and she was scowling at him. And he realized that the smiling one was Marie and the scowling one was Cherie. That’s how she was. The talent show and the performance of ‘Cherry Bomb’ are the two times that she steps out and isn’t afraid to be different and she finally feels like she’s made something of herself. I really admired that.”
The two actresses found the presence of Jett and Currie to be necessary to executing their performances correctly. “There’s a lot of photos, but there’s not a lot of footage,” Stewart said. “They really jump out of every picture, but you can’t capture someone’s actual essence. You don’t know how they move. We needed Joan and Cherie around. I’ve always been really nostalgic for the ’70s even though I’ve never obviously lived in them. I was really excited to live it, to live in the ’70s for a little while,” she smiles. Fanning reflects, “I think me, Kris, Joan and Cherie shared something unique. I think that has changed me, these relationships and the experience. I don’t know, I won’t be the same after knowing these people and portraying their story.”
As Sigismondi mentioned, it’s easy to see why the two fit so well in the roles. Dakota Fanning carries on with an ease and grace, yet has a bit of energy just beneath the surface. Kristen Stewart nervously flutters with her hair and re-positions herself in her seat, ready to react to anything thrown at her. And will the girls permanently and actually become The Runaways like Shane West did after playing The Germs’ Darby Crash? “No,” laughs Stewart. “Go on Youtube. They’ll be better on Youtube than we will in person.”
The story ends with Cherie Currie’s exodus from the band, one that the character ultimately feels is utterly necessary. It is sad considering the band’s chemistry and short tenure, but Sigismondi feels otherwise. “I don’t think it’s a down ending at all. I think Cherie’s story is very inspirational, she listens to herself and gets out when she can.”
The Runaways is the rare type of music-themed movie that is excellent both in its historical value and as a cautionary tale of the perils of rock-and-roll excess. The telling is one that many bands deserve, but often don’t receive.
The Runaways is playing in theatres everywhere right now.