“The Runaways,” directed and written by Floria Sigismondi, based on Cherie Currie’s memoir, “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway,” aims to show the raucous origins of what’s been called rock and roll’s first all-girl band. It does, by taking us back to that 1975 day when record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) introduced an existentially orphaned Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), who played the guitar, to the bored, emotionally stifled Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who looked like Bridgette Bardot and David Bowie. The rest, in true crash and burn punk rock parlance, is history. The film deals with familiar topics: seemingly disenfranchised youth seeking a voice or an outlet, be it through music or drugs and alcohol; glass ceilings; mismanagement; and, mostly, the agony of growing up (Currie was but 15 years old at the beginning; an early scene shows her reaction to her first period) much, much too fast.
Sigismondi made the story flow like an open wound in desperate need of triage. That, coupled with two magnificent lead performances, makes this compelling production less of a bio-pic and more of a rite of passage story of a young woman (Currie) who thought that rock and roll stardom was the ticket out of the San Fernando Valley nowhereville where she and her sister, Marie (Riley Keough), cared for an alcoholic Dad (Brett Cullen), under the unwatchful, mindless, non-vigilant eye of their ditzy Mom (Tatum O’Neal).
Joan is a pariah. We know nothing of her family. She buys a leather jacket with pennies, dimes, and nickels because she wants to create an image. She carries around a guitar because she idolizes Suzi Quattro but won’t take lessons; hangs out at clubs, a wallflower that surveys the music scene from a dark corner. With uncharacteristic boldness, she approaches the smarmy Fowley who concocts a spur-of-the-moment business plan: the formation of the first all-girl rock and roll band. He agrees, if they can find a singer with a bad-ass albeit sexy look.
Enter Cheri Currie. She brings a Peggy Lee cover to her audition but it gets jettisoned for an improvised song that becomes one of their early hits, “Cherry Bomb.” After being convinced that she has to be more sexy, more crotch-grabbing aggressive (remember, she’s but 15), she becomes the singer, poster girl, and chief party animal. Quick success, a road tour with, to put it mildly, unscrupulous chaperones, sudden exposure to sex, drugs and alcohol seem to convince Cherie that she’s found her way but, as it turns out, were really just ways to mask her pain. A climactic and wildly successful trip to Japan (with a nice metaphor of water spiraling down a flushing airplane toilet) sets off a chain of events that lead to rehab, disbandment, and, as the closing credits reveal, outlets in such creative non-rock and roll endeavors as creating wooden sculpture with a chainsaw.
Stewart and Fanning excel at igniting their characters with the exhilaration of dynamited liberation, discovering they can kick ass with the best of their male counterparts. They look, move, and sing as if they’d combust if they didn’t have their music. You feel for them, as if you were a parent or else their relatively sober best friend. Stewart is stalwart as the anchor, if that’s the word for it, of the group, getting as close as she can to the edge of self-annihilation without falling prey to the fates of Janis Joplin and others. The way she attacks her guitar and embraces her newfound lifestyle makes you think she’s found her calling. As helacious as she might seem, she manages to sublimate her demons into her music. Fanning, on the other hand, infuses into Cherie a sense of all-or-nothing. It’s not the destination that the music, the gigs, the recording sessions provide, it’s the way they provide her with an escape that, for her, is just as capable of solving all her problems as the drugs and alcohol that are about to consume her. That’s why, at heart, the movie is about her; when she leaves the band, the movie ends.