PRINT March 2010


The Runaways

Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, 2010, still from a color film in Super 16 mm, 102 minutes. Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart).

RED IS THE COLOR of teen menstrual blood splashing the pavement outside a Hollywood “Pup ’n’ Fries” drive-thru: ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! The screen goes red again when Joan Jett (played by teen idol Kristen Stewart) locks lips with a very stoned Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) after a concert in a roller rink. We know by the vintage styling of the two lead actresses that this is 1975, the year the all-girl punk band the Runaways was formed. Stewart and Fanning weren’t even born yet, but studious imitation of Runaways concert footage—and training with microphones, guitars, and platform shoes—has prepared them for this flashback. They are professionals, good students of badness. And viewers have been consuming mainstream representations of punk for decades already, so we’re familiar with not only the scenery but the experience of its replay: We’ve already seen The Runaways. What we may not have seen is fifteen-year-old Fanning in her underwear, and this is one of the promises selling the film in advance of its release.

The Runaways is based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story (1989), the movie star manqué’s written account of her experience as lead singer of the short-lived band. The rise-and-fall narrative the film extracts from her memoir doubles as an antidrug message for contemporary teens. Currie, who now runs a gallery for chainsaw art in Chatsworth, California, was lured into the band at Fanning’s age by the megalomaniac producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who would later describe the Runaways as “a conceptual rock project that failed.” The film has him reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War and hurling dog shit at the band during practice in a trailer park. “Forget about women’s lib—this is about women’s libido!” he screams at the squeamish virgins. Soon his protégée Currie is dressed like a prostitute and gobbling pills by the handful. Later she collapses in a hotel lobby while touring Japan, is hospitalized, and finally walks out on a recording session and out of Fowley’s clutches. Watching the angelic Fanning go through these motions, we understand that her casting is a crucial aspect of the film’s dispositif: The virgin must be debased to be saved, badness must return as goodness, and in this way punk can be redeemed as a positive image of today.

Stewart, for her part, performs the Runaway as a true believer in the journey and the job. Liberated in leather, her Jett flies into the spotlight, saved by rock ’n’ roll. As Currie goes into her downward spiral, Jett remains stable and cool, a rock professional who keeps the band together against all odds. (The actual Jett is an executive producer of this film.)

It can’t be an accident that the two leading Runaways are also stars of the popular Twilight series. (Stewart is, of course, Bella Swan; Fanning plays Jane in the New Moon sequel.) Goth’s fantasy is to freeze youth forever in a virginal-corpse pose. Stewart and Fanning’s kiss, which lasts only a few PG seconds on-screen, proves that even in the depths of manipulation and destruction, innocence can be preserved. Stewart is the boyish vampire in black, Fanning a pure, blonde soul trapped inside the rock commodity. Together they produce the emo jeune fille, the eternally adolescent self expressing the existential pathos of its own packaging. The product really does have a soul: It is sensitive and androgynous and mourns itself as we consume it.

Trailer for The Runaways (2010).

The brainchild of its male producer, the Runaways was an aggressively ambiguous concept: girls going “where the boys are,” converting femininity into a commercially viable rock product. Were they empowering or enslaving themselves? Punk kept this question open, briefly. “We’re not your product!” Jett corrects Fowley. And in the recording booth, Currie finally pulls her own plug. But now the failed project returns as a movie starring Fanning and Stewart, the question loses tension, and punk is reanimated as a dream of good girls. Tapping into goth culture, The Runaways deploys the signifiers most appropriate to its task: Because this is a postfeminist exercise in cultural vampirism, a sentimental sing-along featuring the leads’ real voices.

No contemporary rock film can escape the law of the music video and must happen as a sort of rephotography of the ready-made band-image. The director of The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi, crossing over from MTV to features, precisely models all her concert scenes on vintage clips that can now be accessed on YouTube, setting up perfect karaoke opportunities for her actors. Her film wants to do its job properly and doesn’t play around. In this way, it closes in on its subject, closing it down. But the Runaways have been revisited before, and differently—by the band Redd Kross, whose excellent first LP, Born Innocent (1982), included an ode to Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford, and in the Super 8 films of Dave Markey (Desperate Teenage Lovedolls [1984] and Lovedolls Superstar [1986]), which parodied the all-girl phenomenon and featured music by Redd Kross. These Californian post-punks reappropriated and perverted the already perverse local culture (Hollywood, the Manson Family, the Partridge Family, Russ Meyer films, themselves) to produce their own funny, sunny corpse in the Hills. But The Runaways avoids these joys of travesty and mistranslation, preferring to remain a manageable indie property marketed under the sign of emo sincerity.

The Runaways opens nationally on March 19.

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.