It’s Sunday at Sundance. The excited chatter and pulse of anticipation hums above the seated audience, bright eyed and rosy cheeked from the chilly, Park City air. As the lights dim and one of the most anticipated films of the year flickers to life on the screen, they are instantly warped to the ’70s, when the king of sexual ambiguity David Bowie rules alongside bell-bottoms, feathered hair, leather jackets, and The Runaways. Started in 1975 by the now-iconic Joan Jett, The Runaways was one of the first all-girl groups to shake up the rock scene in a time when it was dominated by men. In her feature film debut, director Floria Sigismondi adapts lead singer Cherie Currie’s story Neon Angel for the big screen. It’s a classic tale of drugs, sex, and rock as rolled through by five teenage girls (guitarist and vocalist Joan Jett played by Twilight star Kristen Stewart, child starlet Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie, Scout Taylor-Compton as Lita Ford, Stella Maeve as Drummer Sandy West, and Alia Shawkat as Robin the bassist).
The journey starts with a blood spatter, platform heels, and red lipstick, which are a foreshadowing of what to expect in the film. Currie (Fanning) literally leaves her child persona behind as she begins the movie with her first menstrual cycle and steps into her mother’s platforms. From there it’s an uphill climb-or downhill spiral, depending on how one looks at it-as she is propositioned by Joan Jett (K-Stew) and the band’s sexist-scumbag manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) at a club. In following with their name, The Runaways rapidly progresses from crawling to running: first practicing in a trailer, next circuiting L.A.’s party scene, then leaving home to tour the country, and ultimately going global with a gig in Japan. In true tradition of the life cycle of bands, The Runaways sign a record deal with Mercury, struggle with the pressures of fame, breakup the band, and experience a slide into obscurity for some of the band members. Nevertheless, this was just the beginning for Joan Jett, who we know later launched her solo career with The Blackhearts and became, as Cherie Currie calls her, “The Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
It’s no surprise that the story focuses on the dynamic and disturbing relationship between Jett and Cherie as they come of age, since they are the band’s most notorious members. Note that this is not a film for Twilight followers or of Fanning’s earlier feel-good flicks. The Runaways flaunts the stark realities of what life was like for these controversially young teens on their rocky road to rock and roll fame. The film exhibits, in no particular order, pill popping, coke sniffing, nudity, and scenes of a bi-curious nature between the two main characters.
Overall performances from the whole cast are strong and very believable. Fanning and Stewart thoroughly flexed their acting as well as singing chops. Stewart’s vocals in “Playing with Fire” and Fanning’s in “Cherry Bomb” will remain stuck in your head and have your ears ringing for days. As Joan Jett said of their performances, “These two becoming us was really incredible. I really have to give them credit for their work ethic. They were dead serious about it, and you can see that in the film.” When The Runaways opens in theaters March 19th, we will know whether this twisted Betty and Veronica duo has done their job well if girls everywhere start strapping on guitars, leather jackets, and chucks to start Runaway tribute bands. If we are extremely lucky, we might even see a David Bowie feathered coif or two…