All-girl teenage band “The Runaways,” once regarded as a prefab joke but now lionized as trailblazers, are the subject of Floria Sigismondi’s first feature. Despite the helmer’s multidisciplinary background, this proves a conventionally enjoyable making-and-breaking-of-the-band saga. Apparition plans a wide release March 19, which may lead to quick theatrical playoff since, apart from Runaways fans, the pic’s ideal audience — teenage girls who will find it inspirational and cool — won’t necessarily flock to an unfamiliar 35-year-old story. But the names of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning at the top of the cast will help, and long ancillary life is assured.
The film was exec produced by Joan Jett, with Sigismondi’s script drawn from Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography “Neon Angel,” and made with cooperation from other former Runaways (save subsequent heavy-metal guitar queen Lita Ford, who, not surprisingly, isn’t given much screen time or sympathy).
This is in contrast to the 2005 feature doc “Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways,” in which everyone but Jett was involved. The docu dished a lot more dirt than this narrative recap, which both sweetens the band’s tumultuous history and makes it a more traditional cautionary tale about the wild side of rock ‘n’ roll.
“The Runaways” does a good job setting the scene without laying on too much retro kitsch. It dutifully recalls the formation of the band: Rhythm guitarist Jett (Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) are hanging out in the Bacchanalian mid-’70s when they petition patronage from songwriter/producer/gadfly Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who likes their idea of assembling an all-girl (and well-underage) hard-rock group.
Blonde nymphet Currie (Fanning) is recruited for her looks, with signature song “Cherry Bomb” written on the spot when she shows up with Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as her audition rather than the song assigned by Suzy Quatro (the Runaways’ only real grrl-rocker model then). Combative Ford provides the flashy lead guitar licks, and … well, there were a lot of bassists (Alia Shawkat plays a conglomerate figure named “Robin”).
With some in the band as young as 13 at the time of its formation, and nearly all from broken homes, they naturally find the pressures of touring and fame overwhelming. Fowley’s manipulations and penny-pinching are no help; neither are the era’s too-accessible hedonistic excesses. Loose emphasis is on the frisson between songwriter/peacemaker Jett and singer Currie, whose promotion as the act’s sexploitative focus causes resentment among other members. Two are seen as having a Sapphic relationship of vague duration, while Currie also beds older roadie Scottie (Johnny Lewis). An abortion is omitted from pic’s narrative, however.
The pic tends to exaggerate the group’s impact since the band came on the scene when metalheads were certain “chicks can’t rock.” Mainstream rock ‘n’ pop auds found them too hard, while others viewed them as a gimmicky jailbait sideshow packaged by well-known weirdo Svengali Fowley. The group got a lot of attention but not much respect (or record sales for its three 1976-77 Mercury albums). Later, the pic shows them being greeted with superstar-level hysteria in Japan.
Presumably for legal reasons, allegations of abuse against Fowley (other than the verbal kind) are not addressed. (They are in “Edgeplay,” wherein ex-Runaways wax positively vitriolic.)
Though sometimes her usual neurotic tics distract, “Twilight’s” Stewart is a good fit for the tough but good-natured Jett, who carried on as frontwoman after Currie left, then launched a far more successful solo career. In line with many previous roles, Fanning emphasizes Currie’s vulnerability — making her a sexy nice-girl victim — though the bratty, dangerously needy character seen in old clips, discussed by bandmates in “Edgeplay,” and even glimpsed in Currie’s own book, seems more interesting.
Shannon has a field day as the uniquely foul-mouthed, temperamentally perverse Fowley. Riley Keough has a substantial role as Currie’s sister Marie; Tatum O’Neal and Brett Cullen appear very briefly as the Curries’ divorced, neglectful parents.
Apart from some druggy scenes, the presentation is pretty straightforward, albeit energetic enough and benefiting from Benoit Debie’s astute lensing. Other design/tech factors are solid. The soundtrack (which includes numerous other artists of the era) rocks, naturally.
Only Currie, Jett and Fowley are afforded where-are-they-now onscreen text epilogues, which seems unfair and should be corrected before release to include at least Ford and West. Runtime listed doesn’t include the full final credits, which weren’t on the Sundance premiere print.