Late in The Runaways, Michael Shannon’s cold-blooded Svengali Kim Fowley dismisses the seminal ’70s all-girl punk band of the title as nothing more than a failed conceptual project. Those are the bitter words of a star-maker cavalierly tossed aside by his own creation, but there’s an element of truth to them as well. Like the Sex Pistols, The Runaways combined raw punk anarchy and cynical commercial calculation. They were prefabricated yet authentic, the product of estrogen-fueled rage and a sleazy music-industry lifer intent on exploiting ripe teenage sexuality. There is a fascinating film to be made about Fowley’s slick commoditization of adolescent rebellion, but in her numbingly familiar feature-length debut, writer-director Floria Sigismondi apparently isn’t interested in Fowley so much as she is in giving rock ’n’ roll movie conventions a distaff spin.
A disturbingly precocious, scantily clad Dakota Fanning stars as Cherie Currie, a spooky David Bowie super-fan who more or less stumbles into a gig as the Runaways’ lead singer. The dead-eyed talent vacuum that is Kristen Stewart co-stars as Joan Jett, a snarling badass whose tomboy attitude and songwriting perfectly complemented Currie’s purring sex kitten onstage, on record, and in bed.
Yes, The Runaways is as filled with softcore underage lesbian sex as it is with rock-movie clichés, from the montage of rapid-fire ecstatic magazine and newspaper covers that take the group from obscurity to superstardom (in Japan, at least, where the locals have a weakness for young girls in tight pants) to the use of blurry, distorted visuals to convey Currie’s ever-deteriorating mental state during the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills. Shannon plays Fowley as the P.T. Barnum of the Sunset Strip, a prankish provocateur whose tough love for his protégés looks an awful lot like emotional and verbal abuse. Shannon gives the film an unpredictable, live-wire energy, but as it staggers into its third act, Shannon more or less disappears from the proceedings, and the film focuses intently on Currie (whose memoir inspired the film) and Jett (who executive-produced). The Runaways were the first major all-girl punk band. In honor of this distinction, they’re now the first major all-girl punk band to inspire a bleary, excessive, and altogether mediocre big-screen biography.