Interview: The Runaways' Joan Jett

Joan Jett is oozing with musical passion. Not only was the rocker eager to discuss the thrill of making a film about her experience with The Runaways, but she even dispensed a few words of wisdom on the grander picture, just doing what makes you happy. Back in the 1970’s nothing would make Jett happier than to have the opportunity to make music, rock music specifically. Between her stellar natural talents and a little guidance from producer Kim Fowley, Jett became the rhythm guitarist for what would eventually become the first all-girl rock band, The Runaways.

Nearly four decades later, the group is long gone, but they’re coming back to life on the big screen. Dakota Fanning, Stella Maeve, Scout-Taylor Compton, Alia Shawkat and, of course, Kristen Stewart as Jett, are bringing The Runaways back in an attempt to appease long-time fans, teach newcomers about the iconic group and, most importantly, support the cause of living your dream.

Check out what Jett had to say about the development of The Runaways, working with Stewart and her fervent reaction to a reporter who needs to get with the times and recognize a woman’s power to be a self-starter.

What was it like when they first approached you about this concept?

Well, it didn’t actually happen like that. This was sort of in the works for years. My producer and manager, Kenny Laguna, had been trying to help Cherie get her book published and through the course of trying to make that happen, it didn’t get published and then he thought maybe a TV movie might be cool. So he went that avenue and investigated with MTV and they weren’t interested and so finally he came around to cross the Linsons and they were interested in pursuing it. [Director] Floria [Sigismondi] signed on, River Road signed on and at this point it became a serious thing. Then I had to make a decision, am I going to be involved or not, and I just felt if anytime it was going to happen that these were real movie people and wanted to make a real movie and I was going to give it a shot.

Some younger moviegoers know you, but not The Runaways. How does it make you feel that the story is finally being told?

Some of them might know about me [Laughs], but I think it’s great. Beyond it being a really interesting story in and of itself about an all girl band trying to break down barriers and such, it’s a real story. It really happened and I think the movie also touches on a lot of other issues that teenagers go through whether you’re talking about communication with family and friends and trying to get through that whole mess that a lot of kids have difficulties with or just exploring their sexuality. Just the whole gamut of feelings that teenagers experience when you hit that age and it’s complicated, it’s not always easy, there aren’t easy answers and we’re not claiming to give you any answers. We’re just telling you what happened to us. But of course, it is a movie so there are aspects of it that might be embellished here and there, timeline shifts and such, but most of the things it happened to us.

Can you really tell anybody else what you experienced or is that just something that can only exist between the group members?

I think you can try to explain it, but I think to a degree, unless you’ve lived a similar experience, it’s kind of hard to really get the sense of it, especially now since music has really changed so much. When I started a band I knew what the goals were: I wanted to become famous, I wanted to become a rock star, you knew that you wanted to play big concerts, you knew you wanted to get records out, you had a finite goal of getting signed. Now I’m not quite sure. If you’re forming a band today, what is the goal? Is it to get signed? To get a deal? Is it to get on TV? It seems sort of diffuse and not quite settled on what the goal would be now, which is not bad necessarily, it’s just unsure whereas I knew what I was looking for. If I was doing it now, I wouldn’t quite be so sure.

You said the music industry has changed so much. Are there any all girl bands who have encompassed a little bit of what The Runways had?

Through the years certainly. I don’t really think you can make comparisons and I think certainly people have drawn parallels to the riot girl movement in the mid 90s of Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland, L7, a lot of bands like that had some success. The Breeders, Sleater-Kinney, but beyond girls playing instruments, I don’t know that you can say it’s the exact same experience really. I think we were doing something a little bit different.

It’s different because you were doing it first. They had a role model, you guys didn’t. You’ve worked with Kathleen Hanna and you’ve collaborated with some of these people. Were you able to translate things that you learned?

Yeah, I think to some degree, but I think in a way the goals of that movement – I can’t really talk to you about the goals of that movement because I wasn’t part of it and I didn’t start it and I don’t know because they had a wider goal than just inspiring girls to pick up a guitar. A lot of my big gripe is people don’t allow teenagers to own their sexuality. Now, wherever they land on what their preferences are, that’s not important. It’s just the fact that they’re going through these feelings and they feel disrespected that they’re supposed to bottle it up, that there’s nice and neat answers for every little thing and it’s not always that way. I think where I was coming from, I didn’t like being told girls can’t play rock and roll and when I’d say, ‘What do you mean girls can’t play rock and roll?’ I’m sitting in school with girls playing cello and violin, playing Beethoven and Bach. What do you mean girls can’t play? Do you mean they can’t master the instrument? No. You don’t mean that. What you mean is socially they’re not allowed to because rock and roll implies sex and so if you’re looking at Mick Jagger, the cover of Sticky Fingers, you’re looking and thinking about Robert Plant and you picture him with his shirt open, now these are my references because this is what I grew up with and these are the single I listened to. ‘A Whole Lotta Love,’ you go listen to that. That’s a dirty single. This is what I grew up with and being told you can’t do it because you’re a girl, just didn’t wash. My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted and I believed them. I think it’s important that you’re able to own it and women owning their sexuality is threatening.

And let me just say this, I just did a bunch of interviews about this movie, I was on the phone with a writer, we had a long discussion, I proceed to read the paper yesterday and I read that Kim Fowley created and controlled The Runaways. Now, this writer was on the phone with me, could have checked his facts, which he was wrong 100% on all those things he claimed. If it were a boy band, they would have never used the word controlled,’ they would have said ‘managed.’ And I am livid at stuff like that. Still today! Yesterday I’m reading stuff like that. It makes me tremble with anger and I think you can see that.

So what to you want people to take away from this film?

Ultimately to follow your dreams, really. The good old cliché of following your dreams because I really feel that people beat down other peoples’ dreams constantly. I see it a lot with writers when I talk to them about this. I guess a lot of writers must be told, ‘You’ll never make money that way. Get a really job!’ And a lot of writers want to write, they want to put word to paper and that’s their dream and they’re told to do something else, so to me, I just think it’s really important to try to follow your dream and if for some reason life takes you a different way, at least you made an attempt at fulfilling yourself and if you don’t get there maybe you have some great stories to tell along the way. But I think ultimately that’s the message that I’d like to get out beyond just showing what The Runaways went through and stuff like that.

What was it like working with Kristen Stewart? When did you two first meet?

I met her actually last New Year’s Eve. She came up to see a gig and I kind of just dumped on her about The Runaways for several hours and asked her if she was going to cut her hair and she said, ‘Yes’ and I had great faith in that she was going to be able to pull this off because she seemed very dedicated and genuine and authentic. We had a few weeks before filming started to spend some time and she picked my brain.

The final lyrics of “Dead End Justice” are ‘But Joan I’m getting tired/I’ve run out of fire/I can’t go any farther/But Cherie you must try harder/Joan, I’m down, my ankle/I can’t go on, but I can’t leave you/What do I do? /Save yourself, you know what you gotta do/Oh my god.’ Is there a metaphor going on here with Joan and Cherie escaping prison?

This is life imitating art. I was singing about this the other day, not this particular song, actually maybe this particular song, but I think The Runaways there were a lot of instances where life imitated art, but the art imitated life too. I think that those lyrics were – it’s very interesting, I never thought of it the way I just heard it, you know?

After seeing the movie, it made me think to read this again.

This song we’re talking about is called ‘Dead End Justice’ and there’s this scene in the movie that has part of the song in it, but The Runaways used to end our show with this. This was our ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and it was a big long song. The first half was about kids being, you know, acting out and I guess being bad and going to jail, going to juvenile hall and Cherie and I were in juvenile hall. We decide to break out and we jump the guards and we break out and during the break out Cherie falls and gets hurt and I keep going. But on stage, Cherie used to have blood packets in her mouth and on her shirt. When she’d come out, Lita would shoot her with the guitar and she’d go flying and the blood would come flying out. This is 1976, people were just – and at the end of the show the roadies would just carry her off stage with Sandy doing a cadence on the drums and it was really mind blowing, but I don’t know how to answer your question.

Did it have anything to do with you feeling trapped by the band by this point?

No. This was early on. I think this was just us creating a story about teenagers getting in trouble and maybe we created –

You use your own names. That’s the interesting part.

Yeah. It’s kind of interesting that things turned out the way they did.

How was it working on this film? Michael Shannon said it was all work no play, but did you enjoy yourself?

Working with the actors and stuff was great. They were brilliant. The whole process was brutal, but in general, working with the actors was great.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.