The Runaways -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- "The Runaways" bursts with energy, youth, excess, female empowerment, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's an instant hit worldwide with its cast of young stars, but is it any good? Surprisingly, yes. It just must be met on its own terms.

Although neither a biopic nor a concert film about the famous/infamous 1970s all-female band the Runaways, the film does prefer music and bad behavior to insight, character or substance. First-time director Floria Sigismondi, whose background is in photography and video, surfs along the surface of the '70s rock scene in Los Angeles and, weirdly, Tokyo, to scoop up photo ops, sound bites and glimpses of a hardcore lifestyle. The vigor and pace is electric, and the movie features three showy performances by Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon.

Maybe the film falls into the category of Guilty Pleasures. The dark ugliness on display -- the amazing drug abuse and pre-AIDS hedonism -- looks probably too exciting. While the film makes it clear its personalities suffered tremendously for their addictions, it all looks so glam.

The Runaways had their run from 1975-79. The movie so collapses this half-decade run of rock stardom and self-destruction that it feels like the rise and fall of the Runaways happened over a long holiday weekend.

The focus is on three dynamic personalities: wild child Cherie Currie (Fanning), the lead singer; androgynous ringleader Joan Jett on electric guitar; and the band's Svengali, Kim Fowley (Shannon), a record impresario whose attire reads neither male nor female.

This focus makes sense creatively but also legally as the producers never secured life story rights for other band members. The film is loosely based on Currie's 1989 memoir, "Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story." That book, however, delves more into Currie's drug addiction, one-film movie career and downward spiral than it does the Runaways. Jett, by the way, is the film's executive producer.

As the movie tells it, the Runaways are an accidental band. Joan approaches Kim outside a rock club one night and mentions her idea of forming an all-girl band. A light bulb goes off in his ever-scheming head, so he introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stelle Maeve). Trolling another bar later, looking for a lead singer, he spots the underage Cherie and is immediately taken with her post-Marilyn Monroe/Brigitte Bardot look.

After few weeks of rehearsal in a San Fernando Valley trailer -- Kim has to write the group's first single "Cherry Bomb" on the spot for Cherie's audition -- the group, already snorting and drinking all sorts of intoxicants, hits the road. Somewhere around Cleveland, a record deal is signed. The Runaways are a hit and, next thing you know, are getting high on sake and coke in Tokyo.

Only Cherie gets her San Fernando Valley background sketched in, though sketched is the word, with Dad a drunk, Mom (former child actress herself Tatum O'Neal) remarried and living in Indonesia and a loving though iffy relationship with a sister (Riley Keough). Mostly, the film plays out a battle of wills between Joan and Kim to control the band and especially its loose cannon, Cherie.

For she is the key, because Cherie is the angel-from-hell face of the band. Kim exploits her and her teen sexuality to the fullest, even setting up a lurid photo shoot of her for a Japanese magazine without telling the other band members.

Stewart in short-cropped dark hair and dark clothes is the movie's driving force as Joan Jett. The movie never appreciates Jett's musical passion and savvy, but it does capture her burning ambition.

Fanning gets to play the film's most flamboyant character with her fishnet stockings and skin-tight corsets, but the trap here is that, for all its truth, it's repetitive and cliched. Still, the young actress makes you feel the confusions beneath an overconfident facade.

Shannon seals the character-actor stardom he launched with his Oscar-nominated performance in "Revolutionary Road" as the flamboyant music promoter/producer/manager who challenges the girls to discover their "balls." There is never a quiet moment in a life focused on supplying immediate gratification to audiences -- and to himself.

The film steers pretty clear of the more salacious side to the Runaways' reality. It doesn't linger long on the two teens' sexuality, expressed with both sexes and with each other. Instead, Sigismondi rushes back onstage for another performance or plays Runaways music over the film's many montages.

The actor-musicians play and sing reasonably well, or at least fake it reasonably well. Sigismondi's collaborators, especially designer Eugenio Caballero and cinematographer Benoit Debie, make the film's many environments reflect the colors and excesses of the '70s.

In the end, "Runaways" celebrates their music more than anything, even as it tries to give an impression of lives forever on the road where no one -- other than Kim, who refuses to travel -- has a home. The film is not memorable in the sense one recalls it afterward only in flashes and impressions. No scene particularly stands out. And the performances hit emotional and physical highs very early and then stay there.

This might be smart. Probably no one would sit still for a deep-dish biopic about any of the band members. Their product, as Kim sagely puts it, isn't music but sex. So the movie, like the band, is selling flash and glitz and a story about how a group of girls stormed the boys club of rock a little more than a decade after the Beatles.