- Rated R
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All photos © Apparition
Reviewed by David Medsker
or years, I’ve wanted to write a movie about Kirsty MacColl. She was an incredibly gifted singer and songwriter who released some of the most literate UK pop records of the ‘80s and ‘90s, contributed memorable guest vocals to albums by Morrissey, Billy Bragg and the Wonder Stuff, and her duet with the Pogues on “Fairytale of New York” is the biggest alt-rock Christmas song of all time. She even chose the final track sequencing for U2’s The Joshua Tree. In late 2000, she was struck down in a no-wake zone by a speeding boat while vacationing with her kids in Mexico. The owner of the boat just so happened to be a supermarket magnate; one of the man’s low-level employees confessed to the crime, and was permitted to pay the American equivalent of $90 (!) in lieu of a nearly three-year jail sentence. Talk about your tearjerker endings, plus the movie would have the greatest soundtrack ever assembled.
The reason I haven’t started the script is because in the back of my head, a little voice tells me that MacColl’s life wasn’t “sexy” enough, that it lacks the key ingredients that fuel modern-day music biopics. But here’s the thing: the only thing her life was missing was drugs, and drugs are what ultimately kill modern-day music biopics. “The Runaways” is the latest example of this quandary. The movie begins as a highly entertaining story of a bunch of young girls breaking into rock’s boys-only clubhouse, but as soon as the characters begin their drug spirals, the movie descends into a cliché spiral. Not to mention, what a horrible message this reliance on the drug angle sends to impressionable kids; if you want your life story to be told on the big screen, be sure to do lots and lots of drugs. Jesus.
The story begins with parallel story lines of Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), two disaffected California teens rebelling in their own way. Joan gets the nerve to approach local producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) about her desire to form an all-girl rock band. Kim likes her stage name and introduces her to a female drummer she knows. Soon Kim has assembled the musicians but needs a singer, so he scours a local glam club looking for someone with the right look. He finds 15-year-old Cherie (Dakota Fanning), who minutes earlier we see stealing a high school talent show by lip synching David Bowie in Aladdin Sane garb and flipping off the loser crowd who taunted her. Fowley now has his band, but he needs to teach them how to stand up for themselves. (Their performance in front of a simulated hostile crowd is genius.) The girls prove to be fast learners and before they know it, he’s scored them a deal with a major label and a wildly successful tour of Japan. The girls are the darlings of the rock world. Time, then, to start taking drugs.
This is not to dismiss the hardships that Currie, who wrote the book upon which “The Runaways” is based, endured. She was a child thrown into the very adult and dysfunctional world of music, and neither she nor the other Runaways had parental figures to guide them through the madness. However, her cinematic fall from grace has no more emotional impact than Ray Charles’, or Johnny Cash’s, or even Dirk Diggler’s. Drugs are bad, we get it; there is no sympathy left to be squeezed from the subject, even when the user is barely old enough to drive.
Before the drugs ruin everything, though, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun, due in large part to Shannon’s scene-stealing performance as the foul-mouthed Kim. He looks like David Johansen halfway between his New York Doll days and his Buster Poindexter makeover, all id and no mental filter. Fanning deserves credit for constantly going out of her comfort zone, and she makes for a very convincing, and lost, jailbait rocker. (Nice touch getting former child star Tatum O’Neal to play her mother.) Stewart was a pitch-perfect choice for the role of Joan Jett for her looks alone. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the chops to be the Serious Actress she wants to be. Lita Ford’s character, meanwhile, is reduced to background furniture, despite being the second most famous member of the band.
Music biopics have officially hit the same wall that true sports movies hit a few years ago: when you’ve see one, you’ve seen them all, and it is that familiarity that ultimately undoes “The Runaways.” It might sound square to suggest that making a movie about someone who didn’t lose his mind on drugs, or cheat on his wife, would be a welcome change, but in truth, any change in approach would be welcome at this point.