Sunday, January 2, 2011

Rock on Film Part 7: The Runaways

Here’s what I remember: some time between six and seven on a Sunday evening in 1976 and I, along with everyone else in Australia between about twelve and twenty-nine, was giving the family tv the zombie eye as Countdown was on. Emerging suddenly from the oversaturated video glare was a girl group playing a very tough thump, jeans and lingerie against a black background that might have been deep space. Not a smile among them. The blonde floozy looking singer then started her vocal which didn’t sound like it should: strong hard low notes as solid as the kick drum. And then it all soared to a tearing scream and stutter for the chorus: ch ch ch ch ch ch ch ch cherrreeee bomb! Second verse better than the first and a guitar solo, a real guitar solo that I never imagined a girl could play (I was thirteen and could barely sustain a barre chord for more than a … bar). And then, slam, a key change that didn’t sound goofy but hard, raising the power. One last verse, an extended chorus and they were gone. And I glazed over, wanting them to come back on.

After that very very little. They weren’t going to tour any time soon and if they did they wouldn’t be making it to little ol’ Townsville, backwater to the world, haven to the escapee (whenever crim on Homicide or Division 4 had to flee the town they almost always said they were going to Townsville. “We got a mention,” one of us would yell somewhere between a joke and a cry of pride). An interview on Flashez with Joan Jett and Cherie Currie left me with the dismal news that the new album would be more sophisticated. I hadn’t even heard the first one apart from the single (still haven’t, as it happens). Sophisticated? Not rougher? Not tougher? Girls, you punched your way into every teenage boy’s nervous system and all you want to do is Tom Jones numbers? Oh god maybe they meant prog!

But there was nothing.  The second album came out. I bought it off someone who won it on the radio and played a few tracks a few times. Nothing. Joan Jett reportedly swept Rat Scabies off his feet when The Damned toured the US. A few years later Joan Jett had a solo career. As with most other types of music or low end culture, they were rendered invisible and inaudible by punk. Cherie Curry was great but Johnny Rotten was greater and Siouxsie when she appeared had mystique and durability. Etc etc.

This film is an attempt at filling the blanks. It’s adapted from Cherie Currie’s memoir and Joan Jett has a producer credit. So, is it as bad as that suggests? Actually, it’s pretty good.

Cherie Currie wags school with her sister and gets in a car with boys. There’s a sense of fun to this but it’s sinister, too. Joan Jett meets Kim Fowley outside club (the carpark is crawling with drunk teens who mope sloppily and slowly like drunk teens). Their conversation is character keynote 101 but it works. She’s introduced to a drummer and before you can say Sandy West they're slamming out some garage blag in a caravan. Couple of good things here. First, it sounds like two barely competent musicians trying to mesh in a caravan, loud and unlistenable but meant. Second, Joan Jett is playing a Silvertone guitar, a kind of pre-Danelectro beater that would have been ordered via a sales catalogue and sent with a little amp built into the case. They can go for a grand these days but Jett probably paid less than $50 for hers in the mid 70s. Later she's got a Les Paul because she can then afford one. Some attention to detail, there.

Meanwhile Cherie is trying to cope with life between a broken marriage, alcoholic father and a high school that thinks she's a freak. She enters the school concert with an inspired miming of David Bowie's track Lady Grinning Soul, complete with glitter jumpsuit and lighting makeup across her face. This scene works as not only does she flip the bird to the boo-ers (most of the the audience) and persist but she's terrible. This is a well encapsulated demonstration of teenage fantasy life and the dizzying ridicule that meets it at every point of manifestation. Her performance is not a triumph, it's material for name calling, taunts and open hostility. It rings true.

Now all we need is for these two in the same shot. Kim Fowley takes Jett to Rodney Bigenheimer's LA night club where all the British glam records are spun to maximise the chances of meeting a personality for the microphone of the new band that might start from the right spot. Cherrie is spotted swiftly spotted. Dakota Fanning is one shade of underage fragility in the thick pink light and one shade of nail tough survivor with a come-here-bugger-off glare beaming out over her unsipped cocktail. They hit it off in a tough exchange that takes the Runaways from being a flat biopic into a movie.

The first band practice with full complement is a constantly teetering racket. Cherie turns up with some middle of the road rubbish in mind that the girls in the caravan are only going to reject. School concert part two except this time Kim Fowley is ready to take the wheel and steer, bullying the beginnings of the vocal of Cherry Bomb out of Cherie and some 'tude out of the others. In a lot of films like this, his hectoring torrents might seem a little too scripted but a slight youtube acquaintance with the real man's style will correct that. Michael Shannon, rock-like and foghorn-voiced,  is a magister primus, all bronze sculpture and bellows but with wit and concentrated purpose. Check the actor out in Bug and Boardwalk Empire and watch his space.

A wild party/hype phone session later and the girls are on tour in Seedyville, USA where their absentee manager gets them a record contract and a tour of Japan. They're a hit, mobbed by schoolgirls in Tokyo, the teen rockstars are suddenly beseiged by fame, drugs, the press, and 24 room service. Cherrie is the star and the others are grumbling. She falls under the sludge tide of drugs and has to be carried hom in a body bag. Well, not quite but she's not quite well. The centre stops holding at a recording session and the band disintegrate. Joan Jett rises from the ashes a solo artist and reaps the wild whirl.

But enough plot, The Runaways works because its use of rock biopic cliches feels natural rather than contrived. The Cherry Bomb scene might seem a little too acted but it is being led by the overliving Fowley in full motivation mode. Joan Jett gets the idea for a hit song in the bath in an understated funny reference to Archimedes. Even Jett's lesbianism falls mercifully short of sensationalism. There does also seem to been some real thought put into the depiction of life in a rock band, famous or not, the politics, the boredom, the frustrations and strains. Perhaps the source materials and involvement of some of the real players worked this time (cif the Yoko-driven eulogy Imagine John Lennon released in the guise of a documentary). There's some tough stuff among the fantasy here.

This and the constantly uncomfortable scenes of Currie's family life and the apparent decision to let the warts in the portrait reveal the beauty reminded me of no one so much as Paul Schrader. There is attention given to the practical day to day frustrations of having a dependent parent which appears in some very cold lines from Currie's sister who stayed behind to clean and feed the sick man in the room. I probably should go back and look at Schrader's Light of Day which features the real Joan Jett in the cast. I bet I'd find a good companion to The Runaways.

Top marks for going beyond mere effort and making a biopic that also feels like a feature film. Yes, The Runaways continued after Currie's departure but in the interests of telling the story as a movie (rather than trying to cram everything in) this uninteresting fact was swept away. Come on, you really care about that? Ok, give me a song title from that stage of the band. While you're at it tell me the title of either Doors albums made after Morrison's death (without googling).

The Runaways sits beside Control and Backbeat for my money. It even outdoes those two in avoiding the goofy rock biopic moments. One last thing. As with Control, the audio of the band on screen was recorded largely by the actors. Makes a difference.

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