My favorite rock movie, Cameron Crowe's sweetly nostalgic Almost Famous, succeeds in part because it tells a compelling story, but also because its characters are recognizably human. Too many rock movies - Oliver Stone's The Doors is a painful example - merely caricature.
Which brings me to The Runaways, the biopic by first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi about the all-girl 1970s rock group. The Runaways were dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences; the band's best-selling album, 1977's Queens of Noise, peaked at 172 on the Billboard chart. That might have been that, except that the Runaways, and especially their famous alum Joan Jett (played in the film by Kristen Stewart), influenced many woman rockers who came after, notably members of the 1990s riot grrrl movement.
There is a fine story to be told here, about how the cynical music-business impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) assembled the teenage members of the Runaways, including singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), then crassly exploited them as jailbait. The problem is that Sigismondi, who based the screenplay on Currie's young-adult memoir Neon Angel, never gets a handle on the film's tone. There are sweet, subtle insights about Jett and Currie, their ambitions and frailties, their friendship and tentative romance. But Sigismondi undercuts the moments of delicacy with frantic gyrations, especially those of Shannon, who in one particularly ill-advised sequence is seen simultaneously copulating and conducting business on the phone. For all I know this actually happened, but on screen it isn't remotely plausible.
By the time Fanning is screaming in a phone booth, near the story's end, you may be ready to write off The Runaways as mere camp, a film of enduring interest only at midnight campus screenings. That's too bad, because certain aspects of the film are very appealing, especially Stewart's uncanny performance as Jett. (When the film previewed last January at Sundance Cinemas, the real Cherie Currie told the audience that she couldn't tell the difference when Stewart phoned her in character as Jett.)
And Fanning captures many appealing truths about life, pre-Runaways, for a bored teenager in the San Fernando Valley. She is jeered for glamming it up in a David Bowie number at a high school talent show, and she seeks release from an unhappy home life at the Los Angeles rock club that turns out to be her gateway to hemi-demi-semi-stardom. Even in this compromised film, Fanning and Stewart are fascinating, and I can't wait to see what these young actresses do next.
There also is a lot to like in the scenes of the Runaways performing, what with the form-fitting cat suits and the deliriously naughty songs, including the group's signature number, "Cherry Bomb." What's regrettable, it seems to me, is that Sigismondi falls into the trap Stone did with The Doors: She lets the band's outrageous mythology infect what could be clear-eyed storytelling. This showbiz cautionary tale is powerful enough - and sad enough - even in bare outline. It doesn't need to be jazzed up with histrionics.