The problem with “The Runaways,” a street-level snapshot of the creation of the groundbreaking ‘70s all-girl rock band, is that they went with the wrong girl.
Instead of training the lens on the Runaways’ artistic rebel who hung around and became legend, rocker Joan Jett, played with serious punk grrl power by Kristen Stewart, the movie focuses on the one who actually ran away, lead singer Cherie Currie, a kohl-eyed and sullen Dakota Fanning.
The look is there. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, who cut her teeth in the music video world and is making her feature debut, used her shoestring indie budget to great effect, creating a grainy documentary feel that nails the hard knocks and raw existence of the I-wannabe-a-rock-star crowd hovering around the edges of the Hollywood music scene. It’s with the story that she stumbles.
Based on Currie’s book “Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story,” the film stays too narrowly focused on the Valley blond recruited for her golden locks and hot bod as much as her pipes. But her flirtation with fame, or the hints of a life-scarring descent into drugs, never come close to the pathos, passion and edgy creativity of Jett, whose post-Runaways fist-pumping mantra “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” in 1982 captured the stadium rock zeitgeist of the day.
The good news is that Stewart is absolutely spot on as Jett; fighting convention in studded leather jackets favored by biker bad boys and shredding an electric guitar when folk rock or sugary pop was more the fashion for femmes. It was a smart choice for Stewart, who was in danger of having her career eclipsed by Bella, the pale troubled teen she plays in the “Twilight” series, a role that made her a star without confirming she could act.
Fanning, unfortunately, is absolutely wrong as Cherie. Fifteen when the film was being shot, in a bustier and fishnets and heavy makeup, she looks like an innocent lured off Hollywood Boulevard for child porn, not the growling sex machine that -- at least on stage -- Currie was. “The Secret Life of Bees” actress has been working pretty much full time since she was 6, with a string of impressive performances. In recent years, she has been turning to indie projects to make the transition to edgier adult roles, including as a rape victim in the provocative but panned “Hounddog” in 2007. But she has yet to find the right platform, and with Cherie, she never finds her footing.
“The Runaways” begins in the mid-'70s. Joan corners the flamboyantly preening rock guru of the time, Kim Fowley, played with a delicious twisted perverseness by Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road’s” unstable mathematician), outside a club one night and persuades him to handle her band, which at the moment consists of Joan, her guitar and a vague idea. That launches the movie into a glorified making-of-the-band saga, told in quick cuts with a lot of drums.
But they still need that cherry on top of a lead singer. Whether it’s fate or karma, Joan and Kim spot the Bardot blond in a club one night, and when it turns out her real name is Cherie, well, the rest, as they say, is rock ‘n’ roll history.
Currie’s experience up to her Runaways’ audition was a disastrous Bowie lip sync for a high school talent contest, and that becomes the device to fill in her nothing-special surburban back story -- divorced parents, drunk dad, mom taking off with a new beau.
More interesting is when the attention moves back to Joan and one of the band’s defining moments. In the trashed-out trailer that serves as rehearsal space, Joan and Kim improvise “Cherry Bomb,” the song that would carry the group to fame.
Shannon infuses manic life and libido into the crazy, controlling genius in caftans and in the process makes real the ego-destroying realities and unforgiving odds of making it as a band.
But every time things get interesting, like the Jett-Currie relationship, the filmmaker pulls back. So while their chemistry on stage eventually moves into the bedroom, any real sense that something more than casual sex passed between them is left untouched, which makes the breakup, when it comes, less powerful than it should have been.
Instead, as so often happens in music-based biopics, the filmmaker hangs the movie on a song. “Cherry Bomb” is the central through line and the only real character arc for Fanning. But what should grow sexier, darker and more cynical with each performance, and there are many, only succeeds in getting louder, its “Hello daddy, hello mom, I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch, ch-ch-ch-ch, cherry bomb” chorus destined to linger in memory far longer than the movie.