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Those of you with a Twilight astigmatism won’t like reading this, but here it is anyway: Kristen Stewart is a modern day James Dean. She gives the kind of performance in The Runaways that hasn’t been seen on screen since his death. The Runaways is her Rebel Without a Cause and what’s more that disaffected, rebellious persona seems to be one which, as it did with Dean, carries over into her real life. In person Stewart is every bit as tousled and seemingly disaffected as she is playing a rock and roll icon on screen. She’s absolutely brilliant as Joan Jett, it's the role she was born to play, and yet this is not her movie.
Instead The Runaways is really the story of Cherie Currie. Played by Dakota Fanning she’s a 15-year-old girl from a broken home who’s recruited for the band mostly because she has the right look. Jett is always there, off to the side or in the background. She’s the driving force of The Runaways and clearly not only the real talent of the band but the only girl who actually seems to love what they’re doing. But Jett leaps on screen almost as if she’s already fully formed. We never really know much about her beyond the rock goddess. She has no family, no history, no past. For that there’s Currie, a girl who’s not so much a rocker as a victim of the 70s rock and roll machine.
She’s snatched up by strange but seemingly knowledgeable record producer Ken Fowley (played by a brilliantly zany, scene-stealing Michael Shannon) who’s working with Jett to create the world’s first all-girl band. Joan has the talent while Fowley has the know-how and together they put the girls through a rock and roll boot camp. Cherie is plugged in as a singer, since she can’t do anything else, and because Fowley wants her out front to sex things up (their hit song Cherry Bomb touts her as jail bait). The Runaways are a rock and roll band in every sense: they play hard-edged, rebellious, sex-tinged music and it’s not long before they’re on tour immersed in the obligatory sex and drugs which goes along with the rock and roll.
Currie, only 15, can’t take it and the movie follows as she and the girls rise to stardom and begin their inevitable downfall. Fanning gives the kind of adult performance we’ve never really seen from her before and she’s absolutely perfect, deftly capturing the desperate innocence of Currie as she spirals down into a world that’s clearly more than she can handle. But then in the background there’s always Jett, even at her most drugged out clearly in control and breathing rock and roll. Currie, who never seemed to like rock music all that much in the first place, latches on to her like a port in a storm, but Joan is too busy breathing rock n’ roll to help.
First time feature director Floria Sigismondi takes a tired rock formula and manages to make it all her own. The Runaways looks fantastic and it’s paced in such a way that it’s always moving, pounding along to the same rock and roll beat which powers its music. It’s the story of tragedy, in Currie, and pure unbridled talent, in Jett. The rock and roll scenes are toe-tapping fun and the tale of an all girl band manufactured, unleashed, and then run aground is as interesting and gripping as it ought to be. The Runaways, as part of a genre which has been done to death, may not contain many surprises but in spite of that, manages to feel fresh.