The story of 70's all-female rock band The Runaways travels through much of the same territory as any other group whose rise and fall has been documented on, say, any episode of Behind The Music - wild-eyed ambition and hard work by a cast of misfit underdogs brings some level of success and attention, only to be inevitably undone by drugs, booze, egos, mismanagement, and jealousies. What makes The Runaways' story unique is that "all-female" angle, or, more accurately, all-girl (the ages of the members were 15 and 16 when the band started). Such a concept was unheard of in 1975 when the band was formed by shadowy record business impresario Kim Fowley.
The Runaways is the cinematic retelling of their story and marks the directorial debut of Floria Sigismondi, the photographer and music video director from Hamilton, Ontario who might be best known for lensing the visually disturbing video for Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People". Sigismondi also wrote the screenplay, which includes small doses of fiction, based on the book Neon Angel by Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie. The director's quirky and dark visual style is significantly muted for the film and the storyline only gets by for so long on the all-girl and jailbait novelty that hampered the band's credibility, before crashing into a biopic wasteland of clichés and familiar band-imploding scenarios. The Runaways cred also wasn't helped by their inexperience as songwriters, which is reflected in their sub-par discography. This shortcoming was made up for with copious amounts of a most unladylike balls-out attitude.
Kristen Stewart (playing guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett) and an almost-all-grown-up Dakota Fanning (as Currie) are the focal point of the film and give good performances, managing not to embarrass themselves as they contribute their own vocals in the music scenes, with Stewart passably looking like she can handle a guitar. She also nails Jett's look and mannerisms, injecting the character with the right amount of slouched, brooding attitude. The real Jett, by the way, was involved in the film as an executive producer. The rest of the band members are played by Scout Taylor-Compton (as lead guitarist Lita Ford), Stella Maeve (as drummer Sandy West), and Alia Shawkat from TV's Arrested Development (as "Robin", a bass player who is a lame fictional composite of the numerous bassists who played with the band during their four year run). Only Currie is given much screen time in terms of character development, which makes sense considering the source material, but her character still frustratingly ends up feeling not fully formed.
Michael Shannon, whose memorable portrayal of a bluntly honest paranoid schizophrenic in Revolutionary Road garnered him an Oscar nomination, turns in great work here as well, playing Fowley. The physical similarity between the two is striking and Shannon clearly relishes the opportunity to chew some scenery as he inhabits Fowley's colourful persona. Fowley's managing tactics consist of a blend of calculated opportunism, bullying, and exploitation, and Shannon brings the character to life in all of its sleazy glory.
Interestingly, the inclusion of the inexplicably popular Twilight franchise's Stewart and Fanning didn't bring out the massive audience of Twi-hards to The Runaways during its theatrical run: it only made $3.5 million. Perhaps the teenage girl demographic were uninterested because it was set in the 70's, or perhaps they just didn't care about the story of a band who never managed to rise above cult status that also acted as a springboard to solo careers for Jett and Ford.
If a more definitive recap of The Runaways' history is what you seek then hunt down the 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. It was directed by Victory Tischler-Blue, who went by the name of Vicki Blue during her short stint as one of those aforementioned bassists in the band. Edgeplay dishes a lot more dirt and includes the participation of all the band's principal figures except for, quite conspicuously, Jett. The emotional scars inflicted by Fowley in such a short amount of time together still run deep, as told with raw, genuine bitterness by some of the band members. Currie recounts how her father would have "pulled out a gun and blown (Fowley's) brains out" if he knew the sordid world his daughter had gotten mixed up in, and finishes her thought with "I still hope one day someone does, because I think if anyone deserves it that man does". The saddest portion in the film comes from interviews with West, the band's only drummer, who never got over the breakup of the band and is still clearly sore over it, even 25 years later. West never attained any success in her post-Runaways music projects and ended up working construction and other odd jobs, including getting mixed up in the drug trade and spending time in jail. She died of lung cancer a couple of years after Edgeplay was released.