dispatch: sxsw

The Runaways Is A Bomb, And Not A Cherrybomb

Our SXSW correspondent Daniel Villarreal caught the red carpet premiere of The Runaways. And mostly regrets it.

Bad news, everyone. Remember The Runaways, the new film, opening wide this weekend, about Joan Jett and Cherie Currie that features a steamy lesbian kiss? It shoulda been a rockin’, subversive film that showed the groundbreaking band’s contribution to female rock… but it’s not. It’s pretty awful, actually, which makes us ultra-sad because after seeing Currie on the red carpet in her black biker boots, we were excited about seeing queer rockers kick the crap out of the male rock turds. But instead the film’s way off-key and oh so guilty of bad writing, flat characters, and succumbing to the very sexism it’s supposedly against.

Before we hit on the film’s unforgivably bad points, let us give props to its accomplishments. The film starts with a drop of Cherie Currie’s menstrual blood hitting the asphalt… a stunning and provocative start! Director Floria Sigismondi has shot many beautiful scenes, and Kristen Stewart’s wonderful as Joan Jett, the perfect combination of brooding and angry. But 16-year-old Dakota Fanning is sadly out of her element. She’s been on a kick transitioning from child star roles to her adult career, but she may be getting too serious too quickly. At age 14, she was savagely raped in Hounddog, and now she’s snorting pills, sexing, and rocking in a way we don’t completely buy. She looks great, but doesn’t fully own it.

Here are the film’s biggest problems. (Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.)



IT’S GENERIC Sigismondi’s script reduces the male-female world to two unsophisticated halves. All men are sex-driven pig dogs. There’s Cherie’s alcoholic dad; The Runaways’ abusive and megalomaniacal manager; countless dickhead musicians who don’t want girls playing electric guitars; and even Cherie’s boss at the end of the film tells her not to take business calls on personal time.

The women aren’t any better. They’re either completely subservient to man-slaves—like Cherie’s sister who stays at home to care for their dad, Cherie’s mother who moves away to follow her future hubby to Indonesia—or they’re snorting drugs, getting fucked, or throwing shit (like, totally rock and roll). But even the rocking and rolling seems mostly reactive (i.e. because of the abuse) rather than coming from some deeper character.

Plus, the film has all the stock scenes: Currie accuses her actress mother of being fake, gets stood up by dad on her birthday, deals with a sister who’s jealous of her success, gets sexually exploited by fashion photographers, and ends up tragically washed up on drugs. The writing telegraphs everything that’s going to happen just before it does, and does it in the most unexciting way possible. All scenes that you’ve watched in other movies re-heated and served with a side of music.



IT’S EXPLOITATIVE Near the end of the film, when Joan Jett discovers that Cherrie has taken sexy photos for a Japanese magazine, she’s furious and basically says, “Sell the music, not your pussy.” It’d be more powerful if the movie hadn’t spent the entire hour before that showing the girls jumping around in their undies, splashing about in the pool, and wearing corsets, stockings, and torn t-shirts that really show off their goods. Can a film about exploitation be non-exploitative? Yes, but only if it gives its characters intelligence enough to turn the exploitation against their exploiters. The Runaways never gets there.



IT’S NOT AT ALL SUBVERSIVE Here’s the worst part. Because the characters are all flat, they’re not given much of a backstory or a soul. We never really learn what drives Currie and Jett to make rock-and-roll (well, besides a bunch of male jerks). And because they’re making music as reaction to douchebags instead of as a celebration of themselves, they’re not revolutionaries, they’re reactionaries. The director seems to think that their heroism has to do with their number of fans and the number of men they defy, but none of the men are worthy adversaries and all of the fans create a big amorphous screaming mass devoid of any character.

Worst of all, the director aligns the steamy lesbian kiss between Jett and Currie with another scene of Currie crushing a pill with her high heel and then snorting it off stage. Both scenes get washed in a bright red light that signifies a sordid, tawdry scene and a loss of innocence for Currie. All the other sex in the film gets used as a punchline (one of the business managers breaks a table while fucking on a business call, their manager talks endlessly about sex in a cheesy uninspiring ways). And even when Currie gets booed offstage for playing Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” in a high school talent show, it’s mostly because her show’s boring, not because she’s gender-bending.

It’s a shame because the movie had such potential to shed a light on the millions of ways these young women used their sexuality to subvert all expectations in a male dominated world. It might have even show why it was so important for these women to make music in the first place and made their journey, a personal triumph as well, maybe even one inspiring enough to encourage other female artists to do the same. But alas, it looks like an uncreative str8 dude directed it.

RATING: One out of five quaaludes. If you want true subversion, go rent Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways, the 2004 documentary that covered the same material in a much more revealing way.