RIORI Vol 3, Installment 62: Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” (2010)


The Runaways


Meet The Band…

Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton and Michael Shannon, with Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Johnny Lewis and Tatum O’Neal (where’s she been anyway?).


The Tour…

What we got here is a biopic about a group of unique, driven and kinda crazy teenage girls as they rise from rebellious Southern California kids to rock stars of the now legendary band the Runaways. Some claim that they paved the way for future generations of riot girrrlz. Some say they were just a jailbait novelty act.

Some of both may be right.


Sound Check…

Okay. Before the expected rock n’ roll movie screed, let us gather ’round the fire and chew this over: why are there so few successful, if not name brand female directors in Hollywood? Scratch that. Why are there so few female directors period? At least, woman who are known instead of novelty. I can think of Kathryn “The Hurt Locker” Bigelow, Jane “The Piano” Campion, Mimi “Deep Impact” Leder and Penelope “Wayne’s World” Spherris. There most likely dozens of others of the fairer sex who helm a mean camera weekly, and we hear nary a snappy one-liner from the dweebs on Hollywood Insider. On second thought, perhaps a good thing that. Keeps street cred.

It’s kinda understood that Hollywood is a man’s man’s man’s man’s world. Been that way for decades. Oh sure, we’ve had bajillion talented women grace the screen, sometimes becoming icons, several legends to aspire to, impeccable craftswomen and Tia Carrare from Spheeris’ flick about the two dolts in the basement. We can only swing for the fences so much, yet with all this acting clout women bring to the medium, actually being in control of a film is trace element stuff. There’s been more sightings of Bigfoot.

So, what’s up? The first argument that might be made by the cigar-chompers is that Americans aren’t interested in movies manned—so to speak—by woman. Erm, The Hurt Locker did well at the box office and scored a li’l something called the Oscar for Best Picture. Certain lame-o’s could make the argument that, well, she was married to James Cameron. Maybe something rubbed off (don’t scoff. I heard this so-called argument once. Sure, it was drenched in alcohol, but so was Dorothy Parker). I’ve heard similar malarkey as if a female director wouldn’t’ve earned her stripes without some kindly gentleman behind the curtain gently pulling some strings. If this sounds sexist it’s because it is.

Or is it something more insidious?

I’m no Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. But I naturally have a theory as to why women behind the camera is regarded as anathema to the Hollywood machine. It’s simple really. Even since Birth Of A Nation (technically the first blockbuster. A skewed, racist and jingoistic blockbuster, but it did well back then nonetheless) Griffith set some standard and has been practiced, if not run riot ever since: boys club. Deviate from that focus back in the day? Hollywood meltdown. Women couldn’t even vote back then, let alone be permitted to make a movie, the high water mark of influential medium of the times (until radio got popular, that is. And God bless Maria Callas). In sum, entrenched sexism from almost a century ago keeps girlies from making their own blockbusteries. If it ain’t broke—and brings in the samoleans—do not fix it. Just get back in the kitchen and where’s my martini?

That’s my take anyway. Maybe I’m way off the mark, but when you get the opportunity to see The Declaine Of Western Civilization, Lost In Translation and/or Lords Of Dogtown afterwards you may have to ask yourself, “What’s up now?”

That being said, The Runaways was directed by woman. A biopic about a seminal all-girl rock band. Telling? Let’s hope so.


Headlining Act…

So after that being said, here’s a pseudo companion piece to the anti-boys club in Hollywood, its brethren can be seen sniffing around Tower Records, Music City, Motown and even (back in the day when they played actual yadda yadda blah) MTV. Namely, it’s tough—exceptionally tough—to get exposure, let alone respect as an all female rock band. There are precious few as any of us audiophiles know. Sure, there’ve plenty of solo artist rockin’ ladies since the genre’s birth. Women like Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Suzi Quattro and other trailblazers established that, yes, girls can rock out, too.

But what about the band, Elwood? Few and very far between, like catching a homer on Mercury.

What gives? Beyond the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, L7…uh, the Shaggs and our movie’s subject matter how many all-female rock acts can you name? And no, Hole doesn’t count. Sorry. I don’t care who was at the boards. Neither do Josie and the Pussycats. Grow up.

*coyote howls in the night*

For the wasted, drunken life of me I have no answer either. In the past here I’ve made no bones about being a geeky, obsessive, amazed he’s not a virgin audiophile. I’ve got scads of female artists clogging my LP collection/iTunes account as far and wide from Patsy Cline to Marianne Faithfull to Feist. All great performers, and all walking a lonesome road. Hundreds, if not thousands of female rockers and singers have made their mark on their own, but a collective as band? Not so much.

Again: why?

I could reheat the Hollywood boys’ club mentality here, but making movies and making music are two different things, barring the whole entertainment biz and fleecing folks courtesy of Ticketmaster (bow down to your master). Not too different, mind you. Both are all about bread and circus against your humdrum facio. Both are about creativity as business as usual. Both may enlighten and educate (like about maybe why the blankety-blank concert tickets cost so damned much. I know it’s U2, but still). But why is it we’ve had innumerable ensemble films cast with almost exclusively women that did well with both the critics and the box office takeaway with nary a blink? Steel Magnolias, Bridesmaids, even f*cking Mystic Pizza held their own pretty well. Folks seem to line up in droves for synched stuff like that. So how’s that queue for the Babes In Toyland reunion tour?

*crickets*

Or at least some crickets. Look, it’s been a foregone conclusion that rock and roll has been a man’s world since its inception. Thank or blame Elvis, Little Richard, The Killer, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Bill Haley. It’s been a leather clad sneer with three chords since “Rocket 88.” A very large glass ceiling was set up well before the term was coined. But the funny thing about rock and roll since its birth was that if you had the talent, the drive and the attitude anyone could make it. Unlike classical music, you didn’t necessarily need an education to, well, rock out making music. Beyond rudimentary instrumental proficiency, the ability to pick out a choice wardrobe and maybe write a few ditties, to be a successful rock star was to gain an audience. Grab their sweaty attention. Have some showmanship, for crap’s sake.

Or showwomanship. If a door would open…


“Girls don’t play electric guitars.”

Upon such claims legacies are built. Some ignoramus says you can’t, so therefore you do. That’s what Joan (Stewart) figures. Playing folk tunes will not be her trade. She likes Chuck Berry. She likes the Stones. She eventually likes the Sex Pistols. She does not care for Joni Mitchell. Joan wants to rock out, find a band, be loud and obnoxious. Too bad it seems her vagina stands in the way.

Cherie (Fanning) is weird. She loves glam rock, the big glittery mess that never quite jumped the Pond. She’d love to jump off herself elsewhere than the hell that is SoCal suburbia. It’s normal for a teenaged girl to want to be elsewhere, no matter how cushy here is. But Cherie’s home life sucks; if Fixer Upper existed back in 1975, her home would be number one with a bullet. Cherie’s pop-rock mentality needs an outlet, so clubbing the LA strip seems a good plan. Might meet another like-minded, wannabe pop star.

Enter trashy and creepy music producer Svengali Kim Fowley (Shannon). He knows what’s hip. He knows the ins and outs of the biz. He knows what the crowds want before they know they want it. He knows he likes Joan’s pitch. He really knows he likes Cherie.

The kids’ve been doing some busking. Well, f*cking around in a beat up trailer, making their rock noise and generally kicking up a racket. This racket intrigues Fowley (not to mention the abundance of adolescent snatch within his greasy reach). An all girl rock group? Could be the next big thing. Could just be a novelty act. But Joan has the chops and Cherie has the desire. There really might be something to click here.

But the rock and roll world might be reluctant to embrace the Runaways (that’s what Kim dubbed his quintet of harlots). An all girl band? Really. Rockers are supposed to be tough, swarthy men in leather who if they couldn’t f*ck you, they’d eat you alive. Teenage girls? Get real.

Well Joan, Cherie and the rest are getting real.

Regardless, girls shouldn’t like Bowie…


I heard this story once that pretty well sums up Joan Jett’s cachet in the rock and roll world.

It was on a Henry Rollins speaking date. He was telling the audience of the time he was with the USO, touring the Mideast and entertaining the troops. Rollins said he found the expereince so enjoyable and interesting he phoned his agent to schedule another tour for later in the year.

There was a pause. Rollins’ agent informed him, “Nobody goes twice except for Joan Jett.”

To which Hank responded, “Good for Joan, she rocks.”

That says it all for me about Jett nee Larkin. Well, that and her whole ethos on her signature song “Bad Reputation.” She rocks indeed. And doubtless has stories of her own to share with us troops, which might explain the zeal in getting Joan and the girls’ backstory to celluloid.

The last biopic we covered here at RIORI was a rock n’ roll tale, too: the winding Tolkien-esque epic I’m Not There, ostensibly about Bob Dylan. Where that film was an exercise in fantastic indulgence and mind warping notions about who Mr Zimmy was—is—The Runaways is a straightforward rock bio. For kids!

Uh, no. Not really. Not at all actually. I can’t really compare There with Runaways. At all. The only real diff I can call out between these two flicks is thus: one is stylized and the other tries to be stylized. You ever have that happen? Watch a movie based on true events and scam a scent of “this stinks of bullsh*t” against another film that smells like freshly laundered…laundry? Runaways has the former smell, like what we’re watching is fluffed up for audience satisfaction. It’s not overtly a bad thing, but it can get to be an annoying one. Especially when the present film is pretty entertaining, but the show is seedy and not meant for everyone. And I ain’t talking Scorsese/Last Temptation Of Christ either.

This is the deal. Some biopics can be enlightening, enjoyable, educational even. But it all depends on how the “truth” is couched to make it tasty to an audience. Runaways, though entertaining, has more than a whiff of bending/embellishing the truth, whatever that may be. Namely, it came across as somewhat fake; too much embellishment, too much titillation. I don’t care how much of it was actual (and maybe few of the crowds), but there was this mist of “I ain’t buying this” hanging over my gourd.

By using the word stylized here I’m describing the director’s execution based not on her vision per se, but her background. Sigismondi’s style comes from the school of cutting music videos. She’s in good company (David Fincher) and not so good company (Michael Bay). Both those guys have made their mark (or stain if you consider Bay’s oeuvre) in Tinsel Town, so there is legitimacy of cutting your teeth as a director of twenty one pilots’ latest hit.

However Sigismondi’s style is a drawback as well as a fallback. Sure, this is her debut flick, and the story is probably one close to her heart. She loves music, perhaps a Jett fan and might also had to put up with the push and push of directing a kind of high profile music doc from old men who are tone deaf. It’s just a thought, but by the way Runaways plays out there is a brittleness as well as the over-embellishment/smells kinda like bullsh*t factor lurking. Let’s start the vetting process, shall we?

First off, it felt like the setup was a bit on the nose. True, most bands are brought together in an organic way. I know (for a fact) that Fowley arranged Jett, Currie, Ford and the rest as a publicity stunt, but I’m gonna bet it wasn’t all staged. A lot of Runaways feels staged. Going through the numbers. Dribs and drabs of truth polished to make the whole schmeer hang together. The smelly part. It might’ve been intentional; a semi-subliminal message from Sigismondi illustrating the sexism run rampant in both making films and/or albums. The setup might’ve been on the nose, but if you sat back for a time, watched and took a whiff you might hear what the director was screaming (even if was merely a murmur.

But on the whole it was a good movie. Really. Watchable, intriguing and tough with the fun (two onions and a bottle of vodka. Hell of a Saturday night). It’s kinda plastic; a stiffness surrounds the production, but the acting saves the thing against Sigismondi’s Taylor Swift training. Truth be told (I do that sometimes), at the outset I wasn’t sure if this flick was a way for Fanning and Stewart to shed their sweetie pie images. If that was the case it felt a tad forced, but not boring. Sure, maybe our leads were entering unknown territory and had some rightful trepidation (especially regarding the non-rock and roll stuff), but need I remind you it was hard to tell what was “true,” what was Sigismondi’s underscore and what was Hollywood.

Example? You know, between the wobbly yin/yang sh*t I’ve been alluding to? Here we go and fasten up: we have a lovely dichotomy pairing carefree, adolescent with a nascent, serious, adult rock and roll life. Maybe that was what Fowley was mining. History tells the tale that Fowley was less then gracious when it came to fostering his musical undertakings. It was all business, nothing but and exploitation was the keynote address. Shannon channels such cutthroat sleaze with aplomb. I liked Shannon as sleazy. It was a nice contrast to his “serious” roles, and his feline, scuzzy and almost paternal nature made him a breakout star after he’d already broken out. Prob’ from a failed stint in rehab. He’s kinda the villain here, what with his careless care he attends to his latest band/stunt, but not overtly. He’s mostly just smog hanging over every effort the Runaways make towards legitimacy.

Using Shannon as example, the flipside is thus: his hamming it up in his scuzzy way fun, but ofter overwrought to the point you had a hard time telling the truth from “the truth” from an agendum. Like I said, I’m not sure if Sigismondi’s muse drove her to shoot stuff like that, but it entertaining. It was also pantomime. That’s what it felt like to me, and Runaways had an overall feeling of uncertainty about it. What was truly at work here? It wasn’t just a rock doc—that goes without saying—but what was the director trying to tell us? Show us?

Speaking of legitimacy, I tossed off a line earlier pertaining to our female leads, Fanning and Stewart about trying to shed their cutie image. Nothing like lesbionic scenes to cut that cloth (to shreds). But before we cut into that, let’s talk upfront acting. C’mon. I’ve heard once that it’s vital to a film, even if…whatever.

The good? Stewart as Jett was quite convincing. True I don’t know the real life counterpart personally (goddam caller ID), but I do recall her music videos on MTV back in the day. Real Joan had swagger, she was a badass. Is. If not for the tough covers that made her solo career (and later also with her Blackhearts), and even then if it was simply aping for the camera, she carried herself as the real deal. Hell, she was once the only musician that went on USO tours more than once. Girl likes to rock, and bring it to hungry audiences even with the threat of gunfire. You go girl.

Stewart must’ve watched a lot of Jett’s old vids to get the tone right. For most of her roles (okay, Bella), she’s played kind with a shade of anger. Not here. She’s like a bundle of nails plugged into some C4. Tough, smart and barely—barely—containing teenage glee at the prospect of picking up her axe and bonking some drunken party boy on the head with the neck after he tries a grope. Like the original, real life band (and just a shade above Lita Ford), Stewart as Jett wants it. Not at any cost, but just enough of that moxie that the on screen band feels all the more real. Necessary. Stewart’s take was very satisfying with no bullsh*t.

The bad. In short, Fanning tries to be a sex kitten, but comes across as a weak suburban Lolita. The waifish innocence air only goes so far. Despite her being a big Bowie fangirl, she comes across as reluctant to…everything (especially the rock and roll front woman deal). Everything about rock. Most likely, Fanning had hot nut to take a large step away from her cutesy girl image Sure, her uncertainty factor is played out well over the course of the film, but she can’t seem to escape the message of “I don’t belong here,” and not just her character either. Am I saying she was a bad fit? Not exactly, but there definitely was a lack of confidence going on. It got distracting. Fanning did hold her own, but it was fragile. Wobbly.

Okay. Time to catch the meat, whatever that means.

It’s the tech stuff. The alternating small and large things that serve as the glue that holds the whole film wad together. The things between the lines, and I ain’t talking Fowley’s cocaine habit here. So at heart, Runaways is a curious amalgam of a weird coming-of-age story paired with the rough chemistry (if any) of the leads with very divergent goals. That’s how it works in a band, I guess. Identity crises up against the folks that help forge one’s identity. Sounds a bit cerebral, but then consider the social circles you ran with (or against) back in high school and maybe you get it. A band’s a family, and in the Runaways’ case it’s a family teetering on dysfunction. Our cast is very fragile, so from such brittleness delicious tension occurs. We get slammed around with the band trying to “make it” so often here that the smaller, more precious things here might get lost in the shuffle. It’s sad quite a bit of that spice should’ve stayed lost, or at least remained allusions.

Remember back when I hinted at that with a bio certain things are eyewash embellished by the Hollywood machine? Right. Runaways has a cornucopia of that. Most of it focusing square in the eye of the sex and drugs and rock and roll ethos. Well, mostly the sex part. Here was the speed bump that distracted this viewer. For the first act or two, it’s screamingly obvious that Fowley has more on his mind than producing and all-chick rock band. He wants to market jailbait snatch. So natch, with all these cutie pies stuck practicing in a sweaty, beater trailer (and still practicing in said trailer after they’d “made it.” Go Fowley), it’s a matter of course before the youngins’ start playing tab B, slot B.

Right out there: the lesbian overtones are overwrought and unconvincing. I don’t care which way Joan Jett swings. I don’t even know, but again I’m also unsure if this matter was steeped in fact, Sigismondi or Hollywood. Sex sells, after all, and same sex sex sells like ice cream in hell. I don’t think Jett is gay—but she co-produced the film which implies she gave the go-ahead with tawdry tale—but I don’t really know. It’s kinda like my ancient dissection of Lady In The Water: ever want a story so wonky to be believable? Yeah. Same here. I got to thinkin’ the whole man-on-no one action was more of a concoction of the facts jammed into a Waring blender. Who knows? Might’ve been true, but in the endgame the whole sexploitation aspect of the film was less about titillation and more akin to the director’s subtle Selby-esque tone about morality and decay. Two things rife with and odds with each other in the rock and roll world. You could only imagine what fit hit the shan when the Runaways were all in synch. Of course not I’m talking about band practice.

Put simply, as interesting as Runaways was, there was this gauze coating the whole affair. We got the greatest hits, but never a satisfying deep track. I mean, the film descended into your typical rock bio by act three: the fights, the fallout, the rehab. Corner store stuff, like there was more behind the curtain, but not “sexy” enough to film. The show here was for lacking, but in only the nitpicky way I get. Often. After the wifey and me discussed the film afterwards (and her being a Stewart fangirl), she gave it a mixed reaction. I hoped for something a bit more solid, but sometimes good news if just above a C. Besides, it was only the second time she sat down with me and put up with her hubs’ odd hobby. She’s into astrology and I an never one to judge. For now.

Still unsure about that would triad perhaps underpinning Runaways, its motives. Was is an exaggerated rock doc? Was it the director sending a message disguised as fangirlism, like the goofs get from dissecting Kubrick’s The Shining one to way many times? Was this another sampling of male Hollywood smacking the mug of coffee out a young director’s hand. Hell, even Fincher marched of the set two-thirds of the way through his debut, Alien 3. Something to do with studio meddling. Go fig. I dunno. I’m only here to call out what I see. Runaways, though good, had a lot of shadows and fog.

Lastly, I don’t believe that Jett is gay. No matter if, but I don’t think she’d exploit that fact to sell records and piss on Fowley crippled ass.

Okay, maybe that second half.


The Take…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. Definitely one for the fans, but still watchable overall. After a chat, the wifey gave The Runaways a B-. I found that pretty accurate.


Fallout…

  • “Places everyone!”
  • Remember phones with dials that hung on the wall? I barely do.
  • “I want what he’s wearing.”
  • The wifey claimed that Shannon as Fowley reminded her of Buffalo Bill from The Silence Of The Lambs. Very astute.
  • “Quite a presence…”
  • Hey. Was that Shaun White?
  • I gotta admit, the first gig/beer can battle made me laugh.
  • “You’re taller.”
  • Very cool hair all around.
  • You know, I never liked those twin-necked guitars either.
  • “…Don’t abuse me.”
  • I think I know why the Runaways were “Big In Japan.”
  • “I learned how to use chopsticks.” No, not relevant to the above.
  • She’s wearing the coat.
  • “This is my life.”

Next Stop…

“Four score and seven years ago, I slew many a bloodsucking freak.” So said our esteemed president Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Emancipate that, bitches!


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