Director/Screenwriter: Floria Sigismondi
By Roderick Heath
I know I was there, but I’m not sure what we were all doing around the start of the decade. Perhaps all basking in the glaring heat of LMFAO’s career, or praising ourselves over how cultured we were chortling at the toilet jokes in The King’s Speech. Sensitive white boys were masturbating over freeze-frames from Wes Anderson movies and the dudes who now trip over themselves to praise Kristen Stewart’s recent starring roles were all sharing memes about how talentless she was in those heady Twilight days. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t doing what we should have been doing, which was going to see Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways. Pescara-born Sigismondi, daughter of opera singers, was named after the heroine of Tosca. An auspicious beginning for a woman who, after attending college in Canada, swiftly found repute as a photographer and director of freaky music videos. Sigismondi’s visions became prized as showcases first for Canadian bands and then internationally, for their bizarre dreamscapes laden with grotesquery, as in her striking work on The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “She Said”, and clips for David Bowie and Christina Aguilera. When Sigismondi made her feature directing debut, she chose a topic close to her professional experience and interest, in deciding to adapt the memoir of Cherie Currie, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, an account of Currie’s experience as lead singer of the prototypical all-girl rock band The Runaways.
The Runaways failed to gain much commercial success in their day, except in Japan, and they’re remembered today chiefly thanks to their staple “Cherry Bomb,” which has turned up in such odd places as the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack in the undignified company of “The Pina Colada Song.” That song offered a swaggering lyrical attitude and heavy, chugging guitar parts, pitched somewhere at the nexus of glam, punk, and metal, a nexus fans of all three modes would probably prefer not to acknowledge could exist. The band was a relatively short-lived music phenomenon, releasing four albums in as many years and stumbling on after scene-stealing frontwoman Currie left the band, leaving it to lead guitarist Joan Jett to fill her shoes. Jett ultimately found her own mojo as a solo performer and eventually gained much greater success. The Runaways weren’t taken very seriously at the time, either, never fitting in with punk’s asocial credo, and far too spiky for the lushly eroticised sounds of disco. But their albums are spectacularly entertaining, with their little myths of reform school girls battling authority and hunting down sex and fun, like modern day Bacchantes enacting ‘50s B-movie plots. Sigismondi’s film, in drawing on Currie’s account, is less the success story of Jett, although that’s covered too, than her own tale of a talented girl falling afoul of the oldest and greatest trap of stardom: the freedom to indulge appetites whilst arresting the need to deal with the stuff of actual life.
The opening shot lays it all on the line: a giant blob of menstrual blood spotting black tarmac, the moment Cherie became a woman in all its gory spectacle. It’s a touch that gives the film an unexpected sense of linkage with Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) which kicked off with the same fateful moment. Like that movie it’s a drama of an innocent being pushed out into the wild to hang with the witches and vampires, ready to transform you into a thing of beauty or suck your lifeblood. Cherie (Dakota Fanning) worked in an LA diner alongside her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough, in her film debut), daughter of a pretentious former actress (Tatum O’Neal), who, as Cherie describes it, kicked their father out for leaving coffee rings on the furniture. Talented as a poseur long before discovering any other ability, Cherie struts the stage at a talent show at her high school dressed as Bowie, lip-synching to one of his songs, and when the crowd gets rowdy and abusive at her freaky gyrations, she turns jeers to cheers by giving them the collective finger. She starts hitting nightspots, turning heads with her evolving look, and soon attracts attention that will change her life.
Joan, likewise sporting ambitions to form an all-girl rock band even as her guitar-playing skills are still a work in progress, is a totally different type to Cherie, fashioning herself in the mould of old-school male greasers. She dares to approach Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a famed and influential music promoter and record producer whose career started with the novelty hit “Alley Oop” in the early 1960s. Fowley, a bizarre and showy personality who specialises in staying at the head of the pack in the music business by being weirder than the weird, likes Jett’s idea, and introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Once the girls prove to have musical chemistry, Fowley takes them out on a hunt for a singer, a performer to bring sex kitten zest to contrast the rock toughness, and fixates on Currie, with her carefully crafted apparel – “little Bowie, little Bardot, a look on your face that says ‘I could kick the shit out of a truck driver.’” Soon the band is filled with bristling guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat). Fowley bundles the girls up in a trailer in the wastes of San Fernando to practice.
Dismayed by Cherie’s choice of an audition song, Fowley sits down with Jett to throw together a song that can double as a mission statement for Cherie, making a pun on her name and extrapolating a defiant message as the two improvise what will become “Cherry Bomb.” Fowley then provokes and taunts Cherie and the rest of the girls into realising their rock’n’roll fierceness, training them in the fine arts of playing whilst being pelted with garbage by having neighbourhood boys do it. Fowley’s antics nonetheless begin to pay off as the girls survive their first gig, playing an illegal party concert where they have to bat away flying missiles and general adolescent energy, before setting off on the road. Their adventures out in the wilds see them weathering abusive encounters with a contemptuous headlining rock band (inspired by several different bands, including Rush), provoking Joan’s revenge by pissing on their guitars. Once Fowley gets them signed to Mercury Records, the band gets big in Japan, so they wing across the Pacific to tour. But Cherie finds herself circling the drain as she anaesthetises her guilt about leaving her sister to take care of her alcoholic and ailing father, and a pariah amongst her bandmates for readily playing up her sexuality in racy photos that make them all look like soft-core peddlers.
I liked The Runaways a lot when I first saw it, and since then it’s proven a constantly rewarding and entertaining movie to revisit. It doesn’t quite come together as forcefully as it might have and faces a difficulty that dogs many music biopics in trying to make a tale about spiralling addictions and detachment from real life fresh. But it’s still perhaps the most visually inventive music pic since Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), achieving like that film a texture that accords well with the music at its heart and the experience it records, preferring less a mood of earnest realism than one of being submerged in an aesthetic, animating a desire to portray not just a gang of musicians but the vivacity of a moment in time and way of seeing the world. Rock biopics, like the legion of biographies and memoirs of music stars that are something of a publishing standard now, depend on a dynamic a little like what critics detected in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics. They feed eye and mind with gratification and allowing the audience to get off on all the aesthetic pleasures of hedonism and addiction with the added pleasure of (hopefully) good music, whilst contouring them into a moralising narrative where we pretend to be interested in somebody’s romance with so-and-so or learn they’re really a family person at heart when we’re just after the gorgeous orgies.
A contradiction to this is the fact that watching other people’s self-indulgence can swiftly become boring if they don’t tap the sensation of maniacal descent or transcendence through excess. The best movies in this vein tend to tap the latter quality, as Sigismondi achieves spasmodically. Since The Runaways’ release, life has added on its own fascinating and disturbing appendices. Currie, whose simultaneously antagonistic and overawed relationship with Fowley defines her tale, cared for him in his ailing later years before his death in 2015, after which one of the band’s real bass players, Jacqui Fox, who asked not to be portrayed in the film, stated that Fowley raped her. Such revelations add a discomforting extra dimension to Shannon’s ferociously convincing performance a self-made imp of the perverse. Fowley galvanises the band into a working unit at the expense of giving them a close and personal glimpse of egomania at a high-falutin’ extreme, delivering pseudo-philosophical diatribes about their role avatars of youth experience who must alchemise free-floating neediness into a coherent message (“This isn’t about Women’s Lib, this about women’s libidos!”). Fowley is the walking nightmare of the rock world who comes knocking on Sandy’s front door to speak to her straight-laced mother, who shags in his office whilst on the phone, and is glimpsed at one point hanging upside down and reading The Art of War. Fowley arms the band members with such arts for strutting the stage and staring down an audience bristling with anger, frustration, and desire. But he also claims his own ruthless price, as they must put up with his aggression, dominance, and willingness to sacrifice their real selves to a conjured image.
The Runaways marked a coming of age for Stewart and Fanning, who have both since proven hardy, multifarious actors, but who were at the time struggling to prove themselves as adult performers. The crossover audience for people who wanted to watch former child star Fanning playing a doped-up jailbait exhibitionist and Stewart’s Twilight fans eager to go out to a gritty rock biopic proved to be about five people and a dog. But Stewart’s reputation now as a fearless and inventive star owes everything to her segue into this role, playing Jett with gunslinger swagger in leather pants and evil grin as she encourages her band mates to get in touch with the clitorises and their same-sex longings, as when she instructs Sandy to masturbate with a shower head and think of Farrah Fawcett. Fanning had the harder central role in playing a girl who, unlike the iron-souled Jett, isn’t really sure who she is or what she wants, painting on glitzy guises and playing roles asked of her to avoid the question; rather than growing into the apparel of stardom, she becomes a void around which such paraphernalia amasses.
The Runaways unabashedly presents its heroines, products of sundered homes, distracted parents, and the mores of a grow-up-fast culture, as nonetheless the first ripe crop of femininity to emerge in a louche and liberated era and trying to grab the world’s plenty by the throat. Such hatchlings emerge amongst the tawdry but quietly fostering atmosphere of the LA suburbs where self-invention is a form of religion because everything else has a transient, prefab aura. Cherie daubs herself in paint and glitter and emerges as the new-age Venus, sexuality becoming just another pop trope she tries to master. Hormones blend with the beckoning promise of all things now being possible, as Joan’s pal Tammy (Hannah Marks) snatches a chance to kiss her and covers it with the excuse, plucked from Suzi Quatro’s lyrical refrain, “I’m a wild one!” Cherie is furious with her mother for leaving her and Marie to subsist whilst she jaunts off to Indonesia to marry her new boyfriend, and mocks her diva breezily egotistical affectations (“Places, people!”). But Cherie commits herself to doing the same thing first chance she gets, leaving her sister in the lurch with her grandmothers and father who’s left sickly and crippled by his own addictions.
Cherie can’t escape them, however, or the impulses they generate which stick like barbs in the mind: Cherie’s return home sees her pathetically proffer to her long-broken father a $100 bill, totem of prosperity that can’t even save her own self. Life on the road sees the girls introduced to all the hedonistic pleasures available to them. Cherie quickly loses her cherry to the band’s skeevy roadie Scottie (Johnny Lewis), the kind of guy who likes leaping nude into hotel swimming pools, but also edging towards romance with Joan, who otherwise takes the place of sister and comrade in arms. Fowley nudges Cherie towards making an exhibition of herself for magazine photographers, but she leaps in high-heeled boots and all in trying to radically reconstruct herself as a fetishist icon and publicity magnet, only to be interrupted by her broom-wielding grandmother who tries to chase the photographers away.
Skills in making music videos, a realm often dominated by purely stream-of-consciousness image-fashioning and brand-aware marketing impulses, don’t always translate into effective cinema directing talents, although many major filmmakers of recent years have cut their teeth in the field. Sigismondi’s well-honed skills for achieving strange and dreamy textures in her music videos proved invaluable in creating a dense and fetidly convincing recreation of the mid-70s setting in all its sweaty, fleshy, Me Decade tackiness and bravura. The Hollywood sign looming over the period LA is a crumbing and sorry sight, the tattered ghost of a bygone age claimed as stomping ground for hooligan inheritors. Much of the film was shot on Super 16mm to gain a grainy texture. Sigismondi’s eye picks out little splendours in the period recreation to turn to her purpose, like the chintzy tiling in a period hotel shower into which Cherie seems to dissolve as she frays, glitter make-up and mascara sliding off her skin and the small girl left naked and shivering as if she’s being sucked into the texture of banality. Vignettes like the band playing a house party that gets busted up by the cops, the band’s first real foray out of their trailer and into the big world of performing yet still in a bizarrely intimate, domestic setting, wields the potency of all pop music styles when they feed directly from the social landscape on a basic level, the synergy of entertainer and entertained.
Sigismondi superbly catches the feeling of being swept up in a wave of excitement, and the way general euphoria blends imperceptibly at first with the heightened states of drug use and sexual unfettering. The film’s first big performance set piece recreates the band’s “Dead End Justice,” a Roger Corman drive-in juvenile delinquent flick set to song, performed for a thrashing nightspot crowd, as an orchestral show of light and dark, Cherie and Joan at the centre of a typhoon of noise and motion. A venture into a roller disco sees a swooning interlude of erotic discovery as Joan leans over a prostrate Cherie and breaths cigarette smoke into her mouth before kissing her, all in a flood of red light with The Stooges’ weirdo anthem “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its intimations of weird coupling and degrading delights, all the transformative thrill and danger of youthful experimentation packed into a single dreamy image. This segues into a drugged-up bedroom romp, tracing outer edges of Jesus Franco-esque sexual psychedelia where the two girls almost melt into each-other in hallucinatory spasms. Sigismondi puts over the druggy thrill and blurriness of Cherie’s spiralling habit coinciding with her efforts to hide in a guise with the gleefully totemic image of pills on a shining floor surface crushed up under the black gleaming form of her colossal stilettoes.
Sigismondi plays up the queer aspect of the story, much as Todd Haynes claimed the legends swirling around Bowie and Mick Jagger to construct his own vision of rock’s vital place in bolstering gay emergence and visibility in Velvet Goldmine (1998), although Sigismondi’s approach is more intimate and ephemeral, celebrating the spree of possibilities set in motion as the rock’n’roll creed tests every boundary and seemingly makes everything permissible. Such bounty is part of both the creed’s grandeur and its depravity, adventures of self-discovery blurring imperceptibly with predatory behaviours. The performed sexuality seen on stage, particularly in the climactic recreation of the band’s thunderous performances of “Cherry Bomb” for a Japanese audience, is by contrast a zone of Amazonian accomplishment, Cherie donning a pink corset and stockings that in Joan’s words makes her ready for the peep show circuit, but placing it in her service of her own efforts to outpace onanistic fantasies by provoking them. Sigismondi sees in her efforts the seeds for Madonna’s later, more successful manipulation of this idea.
Where The Runaways as a film runs into trouble is, aptly, where the band also floundered, in the process of establishing and maintaining a domain where its big personalities can operate and control their own image, but the less wilful collapse and fail. Cherie eventually digs in her heels and resists Lita and Fowley’s bullying, and walks out during a recording session. Joan, infuriated, starts trashing the studio and abusing Fowley, who is, ironically, delighted with such a display of proper rock’n’roll attitude. But the band can’t survive as a concept or unit without Cherie’s personality as its alluring and mediating face. Whilst Cherie descends even more deeply into drugged-up dissolution, Joan hides out in blank suburban bunkers and takes recourse in lesbian orgies, before resisting all temptation to give and fade back into the fate Fowley predicts for them all, as fat and happy housewives. She instead slowly but assuredly getting her mind back on music, and resurges as a solo star with her beloved cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Where the film’s first two-thirds are sublimely confident in transmuting loose history into a punchy narrative and sprawl of cinematic lustre, Sigismondi’s grip fails as events become more disjointed and the timeline becomes blurry. Both Cherie and Joan’s diverse processes of eddying and recovery require more time and nuance, and Ford’s moderately successful solo career isn’t even mentioned. In real life Cherie continued to hover around the edge of the celebrity scene (in real life she recorded a song with her sister, married Airplane! actor Robert Hayes, and starred in the 1980 teen flick Foxes alongside Jodie Foster, another brush with a big rising star) before dropping out. Sigismondi’s visuals retain strength even as narrative becomes diffuse. Cherie’s low ebb is well-visualised as she explores the innards of a supermarket, dressed in glam fashion but barely upright on two bandy legs whilst exploring the linen aisle, and traipsing across a weed-ridden car park, citizen once more of a crumbling and barren suburbia. Sigismondi also manages to give the film a wistfully fitting grace note, in the form of an awkward phone conversation as Cherie, now working as a shopgirl, calls up a radio show Joan’s being interviewed on to wish her well. The gulf between celebrity and civilian is ultimately defined by another disparity, harder to describe, not exactly one of the weak and the strong, but one of a certain innate warrior mentality that some have and some haven’t. The lapses of The Runaways are frustrating because it’s a lush, exhilarating, stupendously entertaining movie at its best. Sigismondi is still making major music videos, but damn, I hope one day she makes another movie.