Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rocking hard and falling harder

Watching The Runaways is likely to make anyone born after the 1970s rock era wish they could hop in a time machine and experience some of it firsthand.
That the music, including infectious song "Cherry Bomb" is only part of the appeal, speaks volumes about the film. If the skillful concert-sequence direction by Floria Sigismondi and the raucous onstage performances by Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie are half as exciting as actually being there then it's a mystery why the band wasn't bigger success, although a standard rock and roll descent into drugs contributed to the group's unraveling.
From the beginning it's obvious the band is headed for such trouble, since Jett is seen huffing something out of a bag while sitting on the pavement at night and the girls drink liquor from a squirt gun. High School Musical this is not.
While much of the publicity leading up to the film's release focused on Stewart who is the film's biggest star thanks to her role as Bella Swan in the Twilight series, the movie belongs to Fanning, who plays the band member whose memoir Neon Angel is the source material for the screenplay. Neither the director nor Fanning, or even the costume designer pull any punches and Currie is portrayed as a girl who is growing up too fast, but still has reservations about her budding sexuality. That is until an aggressive music producer named Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) spots her in a club one night while looking for a sexed up front-runner for the group.
Once offered a position in the band, Currie auditions and Fowley asks her to sing a lyric from her signature song Cherry Bomb, which, not being old enough to drive, she finds too sexually charged. He threatens to send her away, but Jett coaxes her into it and she is soon belting out the song with the confidence and enthusiasm of a veteran temptress. This is the catalyst of the self-destruction which as true for many starts, almost ends her young existence. The requisite sex and drugs receive slightly too much attention to the point of redundancy, but it's the rock and roll which is the film's backbone and fuels it throughout. Inhabiting the lives of the hard-partying, hard-rocking young stars gives Fanning and Stewart an opportunity to abandon their familiar images and they don't squander the opportunity. Stewart has the narrower of the two gaps to bridge, since she already plays guitar, smokes cigarettes and was captured by paparazzi taking a drag of what appeared to be marijuana. There is none of Stewart's coyness from her Twilight performances in The Runaways and she is entirely convincing as she shreds on her guitar, sometimes so deep in the performance she hunches over the instrument with a facial expression and stance which seem to indicate she is ready to pounce on the crowd. While Fanning had a small role as an evil vampire in New Moon she is best known for her younger roles as cute and squeaky clean girls in films including Uptown Girls. Here she takes her childhood image, shatters it like a vase and steps on the pieces. Fanning is surprisingly sexual in the film and the fact she's only 16 (albeit the approximate age of Currie at the time the story is set) makes for some discomfort as she poses in her underwear for a magazine shoot and later cavorts in a bustier with thigh-high leggings, but perhaps this is the intention.
The Runaways does not break new ground in the biopic genre, but it succeeds at telling a classic story of rise, fall and redemption amidst a thrilling atmosphere of high-energy lifestyle and thrashing music.

The Runaways is rated R for strong language, sexual situations, drug use and debauchery.

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