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Rock icon Cherie Currie recalls the Runaways at Sundance Film Festival U.S.A. screening

Currie: "We were just raw and fearless."
Currie: "We were just raw and fearless."
Credit:Kenneth Burns
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Cherie Currie is a native of California's San Fernando Valley, where the weather is pleasant all year. For the former lead singer of the 1970s all-girl rock band The Runaways, Wisconsin in January is an adjustment. "How you guys brave the weather, I don't know," a grinning Currie told an audience Thursday night at Sundance Cinemas Madison.

Tall, blonde and arresting at 50, Currie answered questions after a sold-out screening of The Runaways, the new movie about the group whose members also included chart-topping rocker Joan Jett and pop-metal songstress Lita Ford. The film, which stars Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Jett, was presented as part of Sundance USA, an adjunct to the Sundance Film Festival that saw screenings and talks in Madison and seven other cities.

The film chronicles the brief career of the Runaways, a group of teenagers who in the mid to late 1970s were a rarity in pop music, women who played hard rock. Inspired by the glam histrionics of David Bowie and the nascent punk movement, the Runaways released a series of albums with gleefully suggestive tracks like "Cherry Bomb" and "Born to Be Bad."

Before disbanding in 1979, the band performed "in every dive in every city," Currie told me in an interview at the Concourse Hotel. "We were just raw and fearless." Currie said that concertgoers "came to laugh" at the Runaways' novelty, but eventually the group won the respect of audiences and, at least as important, male rock musicians. The Runaways' titillating publicity was cultivated by flamboyant manager Kim Fowley, played by a sneering Michael Shannon in the film. He promoted a jail-bait image for the musicians and was "verbally abusive" to them, said Currie.

The Runaways achieved only modest success in the U.S. Their top-selling effort was the sophomore studio release Queens of Noise, which reached #172 on the Billboard chart. "We were just happy to be on the charts," said Currie. "We believed in those songs." Curiously, the group achieved more success in Japan, a story that the film tells in a series of frenetic scenes.

Currie was relaxed and funny as she fielded the Sundance audience's questions. What does she think of the film? someone asked. "The actors are amazing," she said, especially Fanning and Stewart. "Every time I see it, I like it better." When an audience member asked if any of the scenes are painful to watch, Currie cited one in which her alcoholic father falls, drunk, out of a parked car. One questioner reminisced about the Runaways' 1976 show at the West Gorham Street club El Tejon. "It was the greatest time of my life," Currie said of the Runaways' heyday.

Currie left the Runaways in 1977, and the band carried on for a time with Jett as lead vocalist. Currie recorded a contractually required solo album ("the worst record of all time") and another with her sister Marie. She also did some acting, appearing with Jodie Foster in the 1980 film Foxes. But by 1984 the drug-taking of her rock career had taken its toll. She sobered up and wrote Neon Angel, a memoir for young adults that was the basis of the new film. She has candidly rewritten Neon Angel for adult readers. The new book comes out in March, along with the national release of The Runaways.

Looking back on the Runaways can be painful for Currie. She did not listen to any Runaways music for 30 years, and she cried when she saw the new film at the Sundance festival in Utah. But she is proud of her work with the group, which inspired women rockers who came after, like the riot grrrl acts of the 1990s.

"It's a relief to know it wasn't in vain," Currie said of the Runaways' career. "We weren't wrong."

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