My first exposure to the band that leant its name to the movie called The Runaways (2010) was when I happened upon a documentary titled Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways (2004). I could not tell you what caught my eye about the documentary. For lack of any true inspiration, I will chalk it up to my delight in learning new things. It was a band of which I had never heard. More specifically, it was fronted by Joan Jett. The Joan Jett that I knew had a band called Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. If that does not ring a bell for you, then I am guessing you have probably heard their number one song “I Love Rock n’ Roll,” which I have recently found out is a cover. Go figure. Before Joan Jett made this song, she started with The Runaways, who were among the first all-female rock bands in American music. They never achieved the fame that Jett did on her own, but if you have seen Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), then you have heard their one hit “Cherry Bomb.”
The Runaways were a product of the 1970s, and that provides an important backdrop for the film. Teenager Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) idolizes one of the most famous rock stars of that era, David Bowie, and patterns much of what she does after him. Elsewhere in Los Angeles we meet Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), who has similar dreams of making it big in music one day. She has taught herself how to play guitar, and one night at a rock club she sees well known record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Taking her chance, she pitches her band idea to the music mogul. Her pitch is in danger of falling flat until she mentions that she wants it to be an all-girl band. This notion intrigues Fowley, and he immediately introduces Joan to a potential drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Another Fowley suggestion is that they recruit a “hot blonde” as singer. This is how Joan finds Cherie, who also frequents the same night club. Though she is somewhat intimidated at first, Cherie nonetheless agrees to be a part of the group, and shows up for the first day of rehearsals. Unfortunately, these take place in a broken-down camper in a seedy part of town that Fowley has provided them to practice. Making matters worse is the fact that Cherie clashes almost immediately with the group’s solo-guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton). Lita dislikes everything about Cherie, from her looks to the songs she chooses to demonstrate her qualifications for being their lead singer. Fowley does little to help as their manager. He puts them through a strange sort of rock band boot camp, bringing in hecklers while they play to throw things at them simply for them to get used to the sensation. He also encourages the worst characteristics in each of them. In order to sell themselves to fans, they basically need to play up their sexuality, while at the same time remaining unattainable in a tough, bad girl way. In other words, they are to be the kind of women that you would want to date (in the most casual sense) but could also beat you up if they felt like it. Fowley refers to this as thinking with their, well, the part of the anatomy that boys have but girls lack. Finally, he sees the growing discord between the members as a good thing, telling them that rock n’ roll is warfare. With theiscloud of angst, the band starts playing shows and preparing to record an album. All the while they are out on the road, as essentially unsupervised minors mind you, it is apparent that Fowley is taking advantage of them, making all the money and paying them little. Not that the girls seem to be paying attention at first as they get a little too into the rock n’ roll lifestyle, if you know what I mean? Cherie grows increasingly disconnected from her family, and eventually begins to miss them. Fowley also isolates her from the band, setting up individual photo shoots with her and not the others. Everything comes to a head when they fly to Japan to do some shows in Asia. Cherie is strung out on drugs, and after a show where she performs wearing only a corset, the rest of the band turns on her when the images of her solo shoot appear. The final straw comes when they are back in the United States and about to record their album. Cherie refuses to perform and quits the band, and Joan goes crazy and trashes the studio, directing most of her ire at Fowley. It takes Cherie a while to recover from her experiences, and we see her quite drunk at a grocery store shortly after this moment. Nonetheless, we end with her seemingly with her life back together, calling a radio program to talk to her old friend Joan.
Recently, I reviewed The Hangover (2009), and discussed how it is so inappropriate as to be unwatchable anymore for this Catholic reviewer. The Runaways contains comparable material, though there is mercifully no nudity. Yet, I will take The Runaways over The Hangover every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Actually, neither of them is not a movie I would like to watch on a Sunday, come to think of it. Anyway, the reason I prefer The Runaways is because it is more of a cautionary tale. Yes, there is a lot in it that grates against my Catholic sensibilities. There is underage drinking, drug use, pre-marital sex between all sexes, and a number of other moments that I could do without seeing. At the same time, there is a villain against which our main characters must triumph, and he seems to represent all that is wrong with a music industry that, frankly, was morally bankrupt before he came along. To be clear, there is nothing worth seeing in this movie, and that is me telling you this and doing my self-proclaimed job as a Catholic movie reviewer. However, we live in the society we do. Hence, if you find yourself forced to sit through a movie like this, know that it is more of a warning against excess than a revelry in it, unlike The Hangover. My hope is that with movies like this, you can see them and say to yourself, thank God for the Church and the graces it extends to all of us. And then go to Mass.
Luckily, The Runaways is not the most well-known of films. It did get a wide release, and I saw it when it came out. It was one of those cold weekends when I was still at Loyola, and oddly enough I remember the day and theater in which I saw it. As for the band, if you are interested in them at all, I would tell you to watch the documentary. It gives you a more complete picture without needing to show the stuff that movies do in order to fulfill what they believe to be audience expectations.