'Runaways': Where the Wild Things Aren't
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Mo
Once, before movies and Vegas castrated him, Elvis Presley flaunted the kind of blatant backwoods sexuality calculated to outrage the clamped-down '50s. Nowadays it's rigid PC rules that censor raw language and experience, shining artificial light on the darker, less civil corners of our psyches. Of course, that's a kind of repression and, one way or another, such energy will out. Maybe that's why rock 'n' roll got invented: to blow the lid off buried rage, wet dreams, and appetites "civilized" folk keep locked in the basement.
Twenty years separate "Hound Dog" from "Cherry Bomb," the down-and-dirty declaration of independence by a jailbait rock band called the Runaways. That anthem celebrated hard-core teen-queen sexuality and challenged both good-little-girl stereotypes and rock's all-boys club. When Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie came out of the closet screaming, "Hello, world, I'm your wild child!" she was mom and dad's worst nightmare.
Sadly, "The Runaways," first-time director Floria Sigismondi's biopic about the rise and fall of the '70s tough-grrl band, is a fun ride that falls far short of fever dream. Its metabolism rarely redlines on the dangerously addictive rhythms of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, what Kim Fowley, the Runaways' sort-of founder, calls the "dance of death." (As Fowley, Michael Shannon's simply lethal: a trash-talking, flash-dressing, gender-blending monster, alternately clown and killer.)
Instead, the film breathlessly unreels snapshots of a trip that's so swift there's no stopping for deep-dish exploration, or even sufficient time for the band's "noise" to work its black magic. It's an oddly old-fashioned movie, like a dark-side after-school special that skirts the rawer, uglier aspects of femme energy running wild (sexual abuse, abortion). Despite all the raunchy language, sexed-up music, drugs and promiscuity, it's like a punked-up "Little Women."
Since the script was adapted from Currie's 1989 bio "Neon Angel" and Jett was executive producer, it's not surprising that the film focuses on the Runaways' flashy front women, pretty much treating the rest of the group as though they were incidental to the group's success and fell into oblivion the second it disbanded.
First thing you see, a splash of Cherie's red, red menstrual blood hitting the pavement, promises something tougher, a no-holds-barred dive into the power and vulnerability of female sexual identity. That primal blood should forewarn us that a radioactive cherry bomb is about to detonate, blowing old notions of rock 'n' roll and gender to smithereens.
But for the rest of the film that transgressive edge is mostly MIA. A first kiss between fellow band member Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie (Dakota Fanning) plays like something out of a teen-romance novel, the horizontal lovers suddenly backlit by a passion-red flare. The sex that follows is so tipsily shot and blurred (the pair's stoned, you know) that it's hard to tell if something carnal is cookin' or puppies are at play.
As Currie, the dauntingly talented Fanning shape-changes, in fast motion, from pretty pre-teen to David Bowie wannabe to sexpot Lolita. Facile "explanation" for her blind pursuit of flamboyant identity? Indifferent parents, naturally, especially an absentee dad. A lost child who masters the sexually jaded mask of an old soul (Fowley recruits her not because she can sing but because she resembles sex-kitten Bardot), Cherie's transparently empty, starving for love and approval. That emotional greed has sharp teeth, but the movie mostly shorthands the carnage.
When the unprepared Currie arrives at the band's trailer-park HQ to audition, Fowley and Jett free-associate the lyrics to "Cherry Bomb" on the spot, inspired by the image of sexual rebellion Cherie projects. In reality, she's still a 15-year-old square who can't bring herself to sing the more explicit lines.
Here Sigismondi manages to suggest the transformative mystery of performance, the self-defining power of acting out for an audience. There's almost nothing at the center; the song's jury-rigged, the performer's a weak sister. But somehow "Cherry Bomb" becomes authentic anthem and Cherie Currie the champion of unleashed grrl-libido, belting out her theme song in corset and garters, showcasing her crotch as boldly as Jagger or Jackson ever did.
Stewart's darkly brooding presence anchors almost every scene no matter what drama-queen antics occupy the foreground. Driven by her single-minded desire to make music, Jett's a truly tough cookie (far more appealing than sex-starved Bella Swan). How she created herself is just sketched in: her joyous purchase of a black leather jacket ("I want what he's wearing!"), her contempt for the geezer music teacher who proclaims that "girls don't play electric guitar." But because Stewart smolders with such banked power, Jett comes fully formed, her sense of self as strong as whipcord, in contrast to Currie's soft blonde ambition.
Early on, Fowley sneers that the band isn't selling women's liberation but women's libido. Later, after he and the Runaways have parted company, this onetime Svengali predicts the rockers will soon be "fat, pregnant, and living in a trailer park." That dead-end fate is, of course, implicit in the film's first scarlet splash of menstrual blood. But a musical manifesto like "Cherry Bomb" celebrates liberation as well as libido, the possibility of breaking out of the traps of biology and repression. Too bad "The Runaways" isn't wired to deliver the full force of that subversive energy.