A coming-of-age biopic about the groundbreaking all"girl teenage rock band of the 1970s. The film recounts Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and her friend Cherie Currie's (Dakota Fanning) rise from rebellious Southern California teens to headliners of the now"legendary group that paved the way for future generations of girl bands.

Guitarist-singer Joan, drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) join forces with singer Cherie under the Svengali"like influence of rock impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). With her home life in tatters, Cherie adopts the band as her new family – especially Joan, who becomes her partner"in"crime and sometime lover. With its tough"chick image and raw talent, the band quickly earns a name for itself – and so do its two leads: Joan is the band’s pure rock 'n’ roll heart, while Cherie, with her Bowie"Bardot looks, is cast in the role of sex kitten. But during a tour of Japan at the peak of the band's success, drugs and personality clashes drive a wedge between the girls.


SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: If the world needed proof that little Dakota Fanning is all grown up, the first five seconds of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways should do the trick. As 14-year-old Cherie Currie, Fanning crosses the threshold into womanhood – in full-colour screen-filling close up – as she prepares to cross the street. It’s a big-screen menstruation moment right up there with Carrie, and as metaphors go, it ain’t half bad.

Fanning stands at the precipice of adulthood herself, with a formidable career behind her as Hollywood’s go-to-girl for scary-smart/'from the mouths of babes’ insight. This time however, insight comes late in the piece and at great personal cost.

In age-appropriate casting, Fanning doesn’t put a platform boot wrong in her portrayal of a valley girl rock chick (circa. 1975) growing up way too fast, with neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to slow down. She nails the unconvincing confidence that Currie projected with smudged eyes and suspenders when behind the scenes, she needed help drawing a straight eye line and with snapping her garter clasps.

Fanning is ably assisted by Kristen Stewart, who gets excellent mileage out of her seemingly permanent hangdog expression as founding Runaway Joan Jett (perhaps best known to many audiences for her self-proclaimed love of rock and roll).

Early scenes encapsulate the ambition simmering within both the tomboy and the glamour: Joan buys a leather jacket with a bag full of spare change; Cherie’s Bowie-inspired lip-synched lunging in spray on pants/warpaint goes over like a lead balloon at a talent quest.

The two are united by renowned scene-stealer Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as wild-eyed svengali Kim Fowley – a '70s-era precursor to Simon Fuller who seeks to fill a visual void in Joan’s girl rock group. While out trawling the clubs, he zeroes in on the barely-legal bombshell: 'A little Bowie, a little Bardot and a look on your face that says 'I can kick the shit out of a truck driver'," he observes astutely. Shannon devours the scenery as the penny-pinching tyrant, revelling in the band rehearsal scenes where he baits and prods the pre-Madonna primadonnas to pop their proverbial cherry bombs. In one hilarious scene, he trains them 'like the Viet Cong", to fend off incoming missiles from would-be hecklers.

The Runaways’ narrative contains the standard elements of a better-than-average episode of VH1's Behind the Music, covering problem childhoods, a manipulative manager and the corrosive effects of early fame, in-fighting and drug abuse (though tellingly, it omits the abortions, abuse allegations, and other potentially litigious plot points that have been raised about the band elsewhere). It occasionally overstates its points with literalisms of the 'stick it to The Man' kind (such as when Joan rocks out in rebuttal to a patronising guitar teacher).

There’s never any doubt that this is Currie and Jett’s story, since
they’re the two most famous members of the band, and were instrumental
in bringing its story to the screen (The Runaways is based on
Currie’s memoir and Jett serves as one of the film’s EPs). To that end,
fellow band members Lita Ford and Sandy West are relegated to little
more than extras, and the others are deleted altogether (Alia Shawkat’s
'Robin’ is a composite of the band’s many bassists). Even the scant end
notes deny them 'where are they now’ closure, suggesting that some
grudges never die.

Still, it’s an artful endeavour, with seasoned music video director and artist Sigismondi at the helm. It’s a given that Sigismondi (The White Stripes’ 'Blue Orchid’, Marilyn Manson’s 'Beautiful People’) knows how to cut to music, and she makes full use of a soundtrack populated by the likes of Bowie and Suzi Quatro.

Overall, the production values are excellent; Sigismondi and cinematographer Benoit Debie achieve that gritty '70s look through clever use of Super 16 and a variety of filters. Early scenes are bathed in a southern California glow of candy colours and cheery pastels, which are progressively bleached from the frame as the exhaustion sets in; during the Japanese tour, the cumulative effect of all that sex and drugs and rock and roll take their toll on pale Cherie’s wiry frame, and her world duly crashes in (bringing a screaming horde with it). Clever sound design later underscores Cherie’s predictably short-lived return home; her squeaky leather threads are far too noisy for the deafening silence of the Currie house.