‘Runaways’: Clumsy direction ruins tale of ’70s female rockers

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 18, 2010 12:29pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

As an all-female, pre-punk rock band in the 1970s, The Runaways present a particularly colorful opportunity for a filmmaker. Surely this story can become a cool movie.

Maybe it can, but not in “The Runaways,” a clumsy excuse for a biopic. Too bad, too, because it wastes the apt casting of two of Hollywood’s most interesting young actresses.

Those actresses are Kristen Stewart, who plays future solo sensation Joan Jett, and Dakota Fanning, as Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie.

Jett and Currie were brought together as teenagers by the bizarre rock impresario/producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who was looking for a female band he could exploit.

The best scene in the picture is a staple of the music movie: The band (and Fowley) cooped up in a small room — actually it’s a trailer — discovering their unique sound by process of trial-and-error.

Fowley leaps around the small room, spitting out the lyrics to what will become a signature Runaways tune, “Cherry Bomb,” an exhilarating song that defined the snarling image of these teenagers: rock stars as brats.

Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) brings his looming, Frankenstein-monster presence to Fowley and makes a meal of the role. His gusto is so arresting you find yourself wondering what Fowley is up to when we’re concentrating on the story of Jett and Currie.

And those two are what the movie’s all about: The other band members barely register, even though one of them became ’80s power-singer Lita Ford. The script is based on Currie’s memoir of the late ’70s and the band’s brief notoriety, which explains the focus but can’t excuse the vagueness of the story line.

“The Runaways” grazes from one incident to the next, never quite deciding to commit itself. Sexuality, for instance: We see Joan Jett bestowing a tentative kiss on a girlfriend, and Jett and Currie indulging in some sort of closeness, but the movie tiptoes away from letting us know exactly what’s going on.

The customary ups and downs and flame-outs occur, seemingly without setup or explanation.

Maybe director Floria Sigismondi assumes we’ve seen this kind of movie so many times we can fill in the blanks ourselves.

Sigismondi, an artist and music-video director, doesn’t exhibit much feel for the long-form rhythms of a feature film. She can’t even get the film in gear as a showcase for Stewart and Fanning.

Stewart’s ride on the “Twilight” franchise has obscured how good this actress really is, and although she mimics Joan Jett and bears a strong resemblance to her, there isn’t much room for character development.

Now that Fanning is no longer a child actress but an in-betweener, she can’t depend on the novelty of being so astonishing for her age. She gets Currie’s dazed quality just right, but a better role will give a more accurate measurement of her talent as a grown-up.

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