The Runaways Explores the Tension Between Exploitation and Empowerment

There's a good story hidden in plain sight in The Runaways, but it's not quite the one the movie decides to tell.

"This isn't about women's lib, kiddies," sleazeball provocateur Kim Fowley tells his nascent band of teen-girl rockers early in the film. "It's about women's libido."

Well, yes and no. When Fowley, an L.A. producer and manager, helped assemble the Runaways in the mid-1970s, he was looking for novelty. He wanted girls who could rock like boys and look sexy doing it. And he found them: guitarists Joan Jett and Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie, drummer Sandy West, and bassist Jackie Fox. (Fox did not consent to be portrayed in the film, so a bass player named "Robin" is inserted in her place.) But the libidos that Fowley was really interested in weren't women's; he saw leering rock dudes as his audience, with the band in the role of jailbait teases. He made the come-on explicit in the lyrics he wrote for the Runaways' signature song, "Cherry Bomb," which had Currie (then 16) promising to "have you, grab you, 'til you're sore."

But Fowley knew that sex was only part of what made the Runaways work, and so does Floria Sigismondi, who wrote and directed the new film. The other part was the rock 'n' roll. And if the movie is persuasive on anything, it's that the Runaways really were a pretty good rock band. Their songwriting was spotty but their garage-glam grooves were solid, and Runaways originals like "Hollywood" and "Queens of Noise" hold their own in the film alongside companion songs of the era by Suzi Quatro, Nick Gilder, and the Stooges. (By the way, it will be a small service to humanity if the movie stirs any rediscovery of Quatro's sparkling '70s boogie.)

Sigismondi is a music-video director making her first feature, and it shows. She has a great, visceral appreciation for the sensory experience of music, and the scenes of the band practicing and performing are exciting and vivid. The movie is less compelling when the music stops, although the three lead performances are all engaging in their own ways. As Currie, a Bowie-fixated urchin who acts more worldly than she feels, Dakota Fanning emphasizes the vulnerability that led the singer to flee the band after two years of increasingly drug-fueled anxiety. And Michael Shannon gives a spark of mad inspiration to Fowley's emotional (and sometimes physical) sadism; his obscene, scatological philosophizing about entertainment, sex, and marketing is repulsive, but it's not all wrong.

Twilight star Kristen Stewart has a bit more trouble finding a plausible emotional core for the teenaged Joan Jett, but that's not entirely her fault. Jett arrives in the movie having already branded herself with one of the great names in rock history, and in the script—as in real life—she is something of an enigma wrapped in leather. But Stewart looks the part, and nails her shoulder-forward tough-guy hunch and swagger.

The film is candid about the tension between Fowley's exploitative instincts and the girls' own desires to be taken seriously and, literally, to make themselves heard. The world of rock clubs and record labels in the 1970s was no friendly place for assertive young women, and every step toward success is accompanied by insults and humiliations.

There is also a fair amount of frankness about backstage sexual exploration, but here Sigismondi seems unsure how to proceed; a scene of Jett tutoring Sandy West in self-pleasuring is sweet and funny, but the tabloid-grabbing payoff moment that culminates in Jett and Currie making out and then racing back to Currie's hotel room ends up feeling a little exploitative itself. A more self-aware film or filmmaker might have found ways to illuminate the conflict between voyeurism and validation that fueled the Runaways (and, to some degree, fuels The Runaways): what the audience wanted of them, and what they wanted in return.

Sigismondi adapted her script from Currie's memoir, Neon Angel, and the singer's troubled family life and personal rise and fall give the film a prosaic Behind-the-Music arc. But Currie's story, however sad, is not what made the Runaways matter. As Jett says in the movie, after Currie has left the band, "I wrote the songs. She just sang them." And by relegating Jett's post-Runaways career (including her incandescent solo debut, Bad Reputation) to almost an afterthought, Sigismondi all but misses her own story's point: That in the end, after all of the fights and flameouts, there was a young woman playing electric guitar, leading her own band, and making a number-one single out of an unabashed declaration of independence: "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."