They were five spunky young girls in leather, matching T-shirts and lingerie playing raw and raucous rock 'n' roll tunes with suggestive undertones for an instantly adoring fan base in the mid-1970s, first in Los Angeles and then the world.
But behind the sexy gloss and gritty riffs, the Runaways were not unlike a dysfunctional family, adolescent sisters torn apart by rivalries, a domineering manager and a decadent deluge of drugs and alcohol.
"Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways," a documentary directed by the band's second bassist, Victory Tischler-Blue, attempts to go behind their nubile mystique. Premiering Sunday as part of filmmaker Allison Anders' Don't Knock the Rock festival, it explores the complex chemistry that made the band so dynamic onstage but also led to its demise.
As Tischler-Blue tells it, it was a long and arduous process. Five years ago, the producer-director (who replaced original bassist Jackie Fox in 1977 when she was 17-year-old Vicki Blue) decided to make the film after editing together old footage she saved from her time in the band.
"I thought it would be cool because I could contact everyone and get everyone in touch again," Tischler-Blue, 44, says. "Everyone was excited to do the film and for the potential of what it could be."
Everyone except the band's most famous alum, guitarist Joan Jett, that is.
According to Tischler-Blue, Jett refused to participate in the film after she saw an early version and vetoed use of Runaways songs. Peer Music Group, which owns the publishing rights, would agree to the music's inclusion only if each member gave the OK.
A band documentary without any of its music? It seemed impossible, but donations of material by Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford and one of the group's inspirations, Detroit rocker Suzi Quatro, encouraged Tischler-Blue to go on, only this time from a different perspective.
"I had to completely reedit and rewrite the entire movie," she remembers. "And a really weird thing happened because I was sitting there looking at the footage, and I started watching the body language, and a whole other story started to emerge."
Ultimately that story was a much a darker one.
"The angle was basically using the Runaways as a backdrop for a film about abuse and exploitation of teenage girls," Tischler-Blue says.
Indeed, singer Cherie Currie, drummer Sandy West, bassist Fox and guitarists Ford and Jett were all in their early teens when they were assembled by songwriter Kari Krome and manager/producer/Hollywood scenester Kim Fowley in 1975.
Fowley, who appears in the film via footage Tischler-Blue acquired from a VH1 interview, comes off as the main source of discord, with each member reminiscing about his hard-driving managerial tactics, not to mention Currie's recounting of unwanted sexual advances, something she also alludes to in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," the documentary about famed Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer.
"Both of those movies cover a fragment of 20th century pop music culture from a Southern California perspective with the usual heated memories, and people insisting that their point of view is accurate," Fowley says. "Just because somebody rolls a camera and somebody says, 'Oh, this is how it was.' That was their interpretation at the time. The people who go to movies ultimately need to be entertained, and every movie needs a hero and villain."
Fowley isn't the only one taking issue with the accuracy of the film. Currie says that "a lot of the facts weren't right."
The conflict that went on within the band obviously took an emotional toll, and having it dredged up again on celluloid seems to have opened old wounds.
"I just wish more positive stories would have been told, because the Runaways weren't all negative," says Currie, who hasn't decided whether to attend the screening. "I wish that there wasn't still so much bitterness after 28 years."
Phone calls to Jett and her manager Kenny Laguna were not returned.
"It wasn't about who kicked whose bass or who was two hours late," Tischler-Blue says. "There's been on-and-off bad blood, and people manipulating, and paranoia over the years. But I just really wanted to give back to the girls in a way that wouldn't perpetuate any of that, and maybe even help them in their lives today."
Whether she accomplished that goal remains to be seen for the individual members, but for fans of the seminal all-girl group -- which arguably influenced everyone from the Go-Go's to the Donnas -- the film is a fascinating expose, though it obviously would have been more effective with Runaways music. When everyone discusses how the band's biggest hit, "Cherry Bomb," was written, for example, it's almost maddening not to hear Currie feistily chanting "Hello world, I'm your wild girl."
Thanks to some legal wrangling by Fox, who went on to become an entertainment lawyer and ultimately an executive producer on the film, Runaways music will be heard on a companion CD, "Music From and Which Inspired Edgeplay."
Still, the band is seen and heard doing spirited versions of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" and Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll" in the movie. Watching its ironic meld of innocence and moxie on stage, it's easy to see why it stayed together even when it seemed painful to do so.
"Life, at any age, is a challenge and it comes at you hard and fast," Tischler-Blue says. "I think for kids who were still in their teens, to have been thrust into a situation like the Runaways, we handled it the best we could with the limited tools we had at the time. The entire experience was an amazing gift but one that ultimately cost us in the end."
Lina Lecaro can be reached at email@example.com.
Don't Knock the Rock
Festival info: www.dontknocktherock.com
* Today: "Tripping With Caveh," 7 p.m. "Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel," 7:30.
* Friday: "Rock Baby, Rock It," 10 a.m. "Jailhouse Rock," noon. "You See Me Laughin'," 2 p.m. "The Brian Epstein Story," 4 p.m. "Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story," 7 p.m. "Zachariah," 9:30. "Cry Baby!" midnight.
* Saturday: "The Point," 10 a.m. "Loving You," noon. "Rock That Uke," 2 p.m. "A Girl's Own Story," 4 p.m. "The Hours and Times," 4:30 p.m. "The T.A.M.I. Show," 7 p.m. "The Harder They Come," 9:30 p.m. "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," midnight.
* Sunday: "School of Rock," 10 a.m. "Elvis: That's the Way It Is," noon. "Coal Miner's Daughter," 2 p.m. "Illegal Music: A Steve Hanft Collection," 4:30 p.m.
"Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways," 7 p.m. "Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here's the Bollocks," 9:30 p.m. "Rage: 20 Years of Punk Rock West Coast Style," 10 p.m.
Where: Arclight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset, Hollywood
* 8 tonight: John Doe, Dios, Miguel Mendez, Aaron Kyle. Club Lingerie, 6507 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. $10.
* 8 p.m. Friday: Dead Moon, the Starlite Desperation, Lily N' the Ladies. Club Lingerie. $10.
* 8 p.m. Saturday: Built to Spill, J Mascis and Doug Martsch, Secret Society. El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. $20; $25 day of show.
* 8 p.m. Sunday: PJ Harvey, the Black Heart Procession, Jon Brion. Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Sold out.