A few years back, I became interested in Allan Moyle’s 1980 feature debut. Times Square stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as two teenage girls who escape from a mental institution, live on the streets, form a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, drop televisions off buildings, occasionally rule local station WJAD, and creates some underground infamy that anticipates the groundswell Corrine Burns and The Stains would cause two years later. While Moyle was fired by producer Robert Stigwood fired so he could remove explicit lesbian content and include more musical sequences in the film, the director later went on to make music geek teen pics like Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. But his first movie was praised by Kathleen Hanna. While Hanna and I disagree on the quality of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, I’m always willing to give the riot grrrl pioneer the benefit of the doubt. Plus, that soundtrack is a beast.
1) Despite cuts, this movie is still explicitly queer. It centers on a female friendship that is romantic and liberating for both parties. And drifter Nicky Marotta, wonderfully rendered by Johnson, is assuredly a young lesbian who is starting to formulate how her sexuality shapes her identity. She often does this alone and with Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” rumbling in her broken heart, but sometimes with enough room to let in Pamela Pearl (Alvarado), the daughter of a politician she meets in a mental institution and creates a life with on the mean streets.
2) Girls like Johnson don’t star in movies much anymore, which is a shame. Little Darlings came out the same year. Kristy McNichol’s Angel Bright may have been looking to get laid by a boy in the movie, but she reads to me as a baby butch.
3) New York City doesn’t look like this anymore, and I’d love to read a history of how the city and mediated representations of it changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the 1980s, the city continued to endure escalating crime and drug rates from the decade before, as the area had not yet been gentrified and “cleaned up” to attract tourists. This is something Taxi Driver made central to Travis Bickle’s mental decline and that I hope Mad Men incorporates into the series.
By the time Sex and the City became part of the lexicon, it had. Now teenage characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and New York Minute gallivant around the Big Apple. When at the time of Times Square‘s location shoot and subsequent release, the city was far from being the tween amusement park it would later seem to be. As a matter of fact, Pearl’s father is running on a platform to clean up New York City. Thus, you really get a feel for the danger, vastness, and anonymity of the big city that informs the girls’ existence.
But you also get a sense of solidarity amongst them and other street denizens. While the movie could perpetuate racist stereotypes of predatory people of color serving as crack addicts, pimps, and whores, most of the folks the girls encounter are nice. When Pearl applies for a dancing job at a dive cabaret and refuses to perform topless, the owner (who appears to be Hispanic) praises her on being classy and holding on to some mystery.
However, I don’t want to overemphasize the treatment of race in the movie. For the most part, people of color are depicted as supportive, but they are usually without names and relegated to the background. In the rare instances that they aren’t, they can sometimes be viewed as siding with the establishment. Hence how I read Anna Maria Horsford’s Rosie Washington, who is Marotta’s case worker. While Washington understands that Marotta, whose parents are M.I.A., has been failed by the system, she’s still in cahoots with Pearl’s father and writes a letter to his daughter urging her to part ways with her “unstable” new friend.
The girls also have a troubling relationship with people of color. At the beginning of the movie, Marotta rehearses guitar. She sets her amp on the hood of a night club owner’s car. When a Latina matron complains of the noise Marotta’s making, she responds by smashing in the owner’s headlights. She’s also rude to Washington. And perhaps most disconcerting, Marotta and Pearl associate Washington with voodoo and proclaim themselves to align with various homophobic and racial epithets in their song “Your Daughter Is One.” Good that they’re pushing back against the systemic oppression they’ve endured. Bad how they’re using language to express it.
I also find Tim Curry’s role as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, who documents the girls’ story and later becomes something of an ally to them. Both girls are fans of his radio program on WJAD. Pearl actually wrote to him about her unhappy home life prior to being institutionalized, signing the letter as “Zombie Girl.” Pointedly, he insinuates himself as their ally. At first, I thought I was projecting those feelings onto LaGuardia because Curry has one of the most sinister voices I’ve ever heard. But when LaGuardia shows up at the girls’ flat with a bottle of vodka for Pearl and an interest in how “wild” Marotta is, his cover’s blown.
Upon review, I’m basically of the same opinion of it as I was before. This movie is poignant, though I do wish the original footage that documented the girls’ romance was kept intact. I also wish Marotta wasn’t depicted as crazy and escorted off at the end, while Pearl watches the mob disperse with her father. But I also have no doubt Marotta will escape once more, perhaps with Pearl by her side. She may prompt dozens of other girls to follow in her path and pen their own rock anthems.
I caught a screening of The Runaways with my dear friends Curran, Masashi, and Kristen at Act Your Age. How do I put this? . . . It was terrible.
It was off to a promising start with the movie’s first image: a drop of menstrual blood. It did a good job establishing the sunny malaise of 70s Southern California, but a hackneyed and incoherent script, weak characterization, and wooden acting were evident early on. Once the band went on their first tour, the movie ran off the rails and never recovered. As a casual fan of the group in question who hasn’t read lead singer Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel (the screenplay’s source material), I didn’t leave the theater with any gained insight. And as someone who teaches rock history to girls, I have no idea what they would get out off this movie. The band’s relevance as musical pioneers is assumed and thus given no context. Furthermore, the actresses are not often shown playing instruments or working as a unit. In fact, the movie mainly focuses on founder and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Currie (Dakota Fanning), giving a little time to co-founder and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but obscuring Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin Blakemore (Alia Shawkat), an amalgam of the group’s many bassists.
In short, I am at a loss as to the function of this movie. Who is this movie for? Why did it get made? Why is this story worth telling? As a feminist music geek, these questions are usually rhetorical. But as a jilted moviegoer two hours later, these were the questions I was left with.
I’ll elaborate more on my criticisms with the movie later in this post, but first I’d like to get in to the limits of the music biopic but why I still like watching them. Curran asked Kristen and me before the movie started what our expectations were. We said we thought there’d be some salvageable moments and maybe some good performances.
To be fair, that’s really all most music biopics deliver (I’m specifically talking about feature films here, but we could easily extend this to made-for-TV movies too). I’m not sure if any film genre scholars have written on music biopics (feel free to share any relevant texts in the comments section — I love a reading list). It seems like a genre worth evaluating, particularly since they’re often disappointing. As with all biopics, there’s always the matter of historical accuracy, warped by legends, differing accounts, flexible realities, and negotiated subjectivities. When these issues are compromised in music biopics, they often result in fans saying the filmmakers got it wrong.
Since music is such a personal thing to people — perhaps more personal than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although not for my mother — fandom, with or without its itinerant hero worship, identification, queerable desire, and morbid curiosity, is a critical component of music biopic reception. It’s why I saw Ray, Bird, Walk the Line, Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en rose, Lady Sings the Blue, Impromptu, Sid and Nancy, Amadeus, I’m Not There, and 24-Hour Party People. It’s why I’ll see Control, The Rose, Notorious, Cadillac Records, De-Lovely, Grace of My Heart, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Last Days, Sweet Dreams, What We Do Is Secret, Bound for Glory and a myriad of others regardless of what reviews they garnered. It’s why I’ll see Elijah Wood’s turn as Iggy Pop in The Passenger if it ever gets released. Ditto for the Jeff Buckley biopic, (preferably) with or without James Franco, should it ever get off the ground.
What music fans hope to get out of a music biopic varies. Perhaps there’s hope of being faithful to the subject and source material. As someone who doesn’t mind when biopics play with history, I’m usually more interested in what aspects of their stories get highlighted and how the surrounding era is evoked, because music biopics are also period pieces. Above all, I’m interested in casting. Who is playing the musician in question?
As a film genre, music biopics are foremost star vehicles. The same can be said of biopics in general, as they can guarantee a lock for an Oscar win in the acting categories. Unlike traditional historical biographies though, music biopics tend not be the domain of directors looking to flex authorial muscle. Perhaps this has to do with value judgments placed upon rock music as being less culturally significant than, say, the life of Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, or Jesus Christ. This doesn’t necessarily extend to concert features, as directors like Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch have them on their résumés. But the majority of music biopics are driven by the star, not the director. Regularly, Oscar nominations are given to actors who play musicians, some of whom have even won the coveted prize. Marion Cotillard won most recently for her turn as Édith Piaf in La vie en rose. It was earned, in my opinion. Her devastating performance saved a movie marred by too many tracking shots of the subject suffering in private, pacing backstage, and then taking that pain with her in performance.
Tangentially related, but opinion varies as to whether the actor should sing. My take is that if the actor can pull off the singer’s style, okay. But in general, I actually prefer hearing the original source material. There’s much to be said for an actor who can do a convincing lip sync.
But music biopics tend to be unsatisfying in execution, even if the actors do a good job. The main reason for this, I think, has to do with the genre abiding by staid storytelling conventions and taking on too much of the subject’s biography. Some music biopics have defied expectations, playing with formal convention and myth as well as pursuing alternate perspectives from folks involved with other aspects of the music industry and fans. I’d credit Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with achieving this.
I also think there’s a lot of value in focusing on a key period in a musical act’s life or career and allow this time to give the subject his or her larger sociohistoric context. I liked Stephen Frears’s The Queen in large part because it narrows its sights on the brief period of time between the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana and resultant grief of her loss and let those events shape the character of Queen Elizabeth II. While I haven’t seen all of Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, I wonder if dwelling on Kurt Cobain’s final moments might say more about his distress than a retelling of the events that led to Nirvana’s meteoric rise.
After the musical act in question starts touring and usually begins tasting some fame, music biopics become boring and predictable. As a result, music biopics take out the electricity from the people who wrote songs to the soundtrack of our memories. They turn their lives into plodding accounts of what become crappy day jobs as routinized and dehumanizing as cubicle-dwelling but with less relateable struggles Behind the Music already exhausted. You can play? I can play too. Hey, we got a record deal! Our song is on the radio! Look, groupies and available drugs! Ugh, touring is boring. All the cities look the same. Oh wait, here come the struggles with fame and the weight of expectations. The fame has driven a wedge between me and my fans. More drugs and probably some questionable vanity purchases. Oh no, the band isn’t getting along. Factions! We can’t replicate the magic anymore. Vices! Overdoses, which result in two outcomes. There is death, and then a celebration of legacy. There is also rehab, which is usually followed by half-hearted reunions or anonymity, often accompanied by middle-aged paunch. YAWN.
And when you focus on boys who deal with these pressures through self-medication and illicit sex with women who aren’t their partners, only to seek redemption in a mistress, a second wife, or Jesus, I really have no sympathy. I will laugh at them however, which is why I’ll get around to seeing Walk Hard, a movie that pokes fun at these conventions.
But Floria Sigismondi’s movie proves that an all-girl proto-punk band can be just as boring as any man in rock music. And now, let’s launch into my problems with The Runaways.
1. The script. This is the movie’s biggest problem. Given that this is director Sigismondi’s first feature, it is also her first screenwriter credit. Early into the movie, I had flashes of Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Like Sigismondi, Romanek proved his mettle as an innovative music video director before he made directorial debut. And while that helped both directors establish an aesthetic style, it didn’t help develop their writing skills. Because . . . oh boy, is Sigismondi’s script marred with clunky dialogue, incoherent tonal shifts, and unfounded character motivation. So often, the movie launches into important developments with little explanation or context. How did the girls discover rock and roll for themselves? Why were there homelives unsatisfying? Why did the girls form a band? How they function as a unit? How did they handle detractors? How did they interact with other bands? What was their relationship with label employees, road crews, journalists, fans, and the number of folks they encountered? How popular were they in the United States? How popular were they abroad? Why were they so beloved in Japan? Perhaps this has to do with a reliance on the movie’s audience to know the band’s backstory. Perhaps this has to do with legal intervention as well, which might explain how little screen time Sandy West, Lita Ford, and the bassists get.
And sometimes Sigismondi’s career as a director encroaches too much on her work in this feature. Bathtubs becoming lagoons? Jett writing a song in a milk bath? Currie calling her sister at an abandoned phone booth in some random abandoned parking lot? It looks cool, but doesn’t really convey any information.
2. The movie isn’t gay enough. Now, to be fair, I was surprised at how gay it was — just like I was happy about Currie’s menstrual blood and Jett urinating on a sexist musician’s guitar. And while I think that Stewart is basically playing Jett as Shane McKutcheon from The L-Word, I believe her baby butch swagger. But a lot is hinted at and insinuated where fan and pro-sex feminist Susie Bright knew there were explicitly gay or queer things were happening at the time. And when Sigismondi pervades Jett and Currie’s sex scene with red lights, slow motion, close-ups on open mouths, off-kilter camera angles, and soft focus, it enforces Currie’s wastedness, thus perpetuating the notion that women and girls have to be inebriated to be intimate with one another. FAIL.
3. The matter of the leads. I don’t want to play the game of pitting one actress against another, as each part has its own demands. And both actresses are at a tenuous point at their career, transitioning from child stars to leading ladies. Interestingly, they’ve also been a part of the Twilight series and seem to be using the money they’ve earned from the franchise to subsidize less commercial fare like this movie.
In truth, I wasn’t wowed by either actress. To their credit, it’s hard to make lines like “I’m thinking with my cock” and “I thought we were your fucked-up family” beat the page. Furthermore, they’re given little motivation for their characters. What possesses Jett to pick up a guitar, much less link up with Svengali Kim Fowley? Why does Currie spiral into addiction and despair? For Currie, a negligent family with a history of substance abuse might be the reason, as might intimations that she was raped while on tour. But the actresses aren’t given much to work with. Jett scowls. Currie rolls her eyes like a Valley Girl. And neither of them convey for me the dynamism their characters possessed onstage.
4. Sexism and misogyny. Again, I was amazed that these issues were acknowledged at all, though they are crucial to the telling of this band’s story. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how the movie dealt with the public and the band’s conflicting feelings about their sexuality and agency over their own objectification as jailbait hellcat rebels. But the script puts too fine a point on how icky and regressive and threatening men were to young girls trying to break into the music industry. At the same time, it provides little context as to why these attitudes were prevalent and if The Runaways changed them at all and how. And why would these girls put up with Fowley’s abuse? Do age and gender have anything to do with it? Assuredly, but the movie doesn’t develop these issues further.
To actor Michael Shannon’s credit, I think he does a credible job with Fowley. As the movie tends to reduce the character to a series of random antics, feel free to watch his interview on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Note to how little Jett talks, how often she is interrupted and cut off, and how often Fowley speaks for her and the band. I think these interjections and silence speak volumes of the sort of industry sexism Jett had to deal with.
Having said all this, am I happy and pleasantly surprised that this movie got made? Yes. Do I wish it could be better? Of course. Do I think the story of The Runaways and a myriad of other bands should be told? Absolutely. I still recommend seeing this movie. And if it gets people interested in the members’ music and their history, along with the careers of the movie’s director and stars, even better. I’ll close with a recollection of a scene from the movie: Jett visits Currie in the hospital following the lead singer’s free-fall into addiction. Jett informs Currie that she read about an all-girl band forming in Korea. “They suck,” Jett maintains, “but it’s still pretty cool.” My sentiments exactly.
The Runaways biopic trailer is up on the Interwebz. I know about it thanks to Courtney, who posted this article to our friend Annie’s Facebook page. I’ve been at attention for any news about it for months, so I just had to rush out and write a post. What do we all think?
Admittedly, it looks like a standard rock biopic trailer that actually doesn’t reveal too much about the band. We know from the trailer that the girls were in a band, the rock industry in the 1970s was dominated by men, and The Runaways had a male manager who wore glam eye make-up (Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon who was excellent in Revolutionary Road).
While we see that Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) may have gone through some inner turmoil, we don’t see any acting scenes from the girls. In fact, we don’t hear the actresses deliver any lines of dialogue and I’m not sure if they’re actually playing (though I hope they are and speculate that Dakota Fanning did her own singing as Cherie Currie). The only spoken words we hear are all from adult men. So that’s a bummer.
I’m also curious as to how the movie will navigate the band’s myriad of replacement bassists and how this may be informed by Jackie Fox and Joan Jett’s legal disagreements.
Nonetheless, I’m fucking stoked. Can’t wait to see these girls. Looking forward to Alia Shawkat, who makes an appearance as one of the band’s bass players. Also looking out for Scout-Taylor Compton, who plays Lita Ford and played Laurie Strode in the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes (proud aside: the second installment of the series featured a dear friend of mine). So I hope these ladies (including Kristen, Dakota, and Floria) rock that shit.
As readers of the blog may know, I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears on the Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning Runaways biopic. While you may know the leads, the director and screenwriter may not be as much of a household name. But hopefully that will change, as first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi has been making amazing music videos since the early 1990s. Some of her more famous titles include Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid,” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” Also, Sigur Rós’s “Untitled #1” knocks me breathless each time I see it.
In keeping with the spirit of the blog, I thought I’d focus on the female musicians Sigismondi has worked with (click on the artists’ names). Also, having read a delightful post on music videos inspired by horror films from my friend Caitlin at Dark Room, I thought I’d continue in the spirit.
Back to Basics
Quixotic (retitled Anything upon re-release)
“Anything But Down”
The Globe Sessions
Have we all seen Kristen Stewart’s new haircut? I for one love it. Some people have been hatin’ on her new ‘do on the Interwebz. And, really, c’mon.
1. Stewart’s playing Joan Jett. During her time in the Runaways. In the mid-1970s. This was what her hair looked like. It’s kinda still what her hair looks like. Further, this is what a lot of girls’ hair looked like in 1975, including other members of the Runaways. I hope Dakota Fanning also got her hair cut to play lead singer Cherie Currie.
2. I like Kristen Stewart. She was great in Adventureland and she seems to have a relaxed attitude toward her role as Bella in Twilight — perhaps playing Bella Swan is one for them and playing Joan Jett is one for her.
2A. I also like to think when Stewart was offered the part, she asked “Do I get to cut my hair?”
3. Sure, you could throw a wig on Kristen, but she looks hot. Not hot despite the mullet. Hot with the mullet.
Also, I can’t help but read some queer panic in some folks’ disapproval of the haircut alongside Joan Jett’s queer identity. Take Popcrunch. In addition to including an unflattering photo when they posted the news, they made an effort to contrast Joan Jett’s mullet, which they don’t like, alongside Bella Swan’s damsel mane, which they hope Stewart will return to once the movie wraps.
And while I have some music nerd doubts about the Runaways biopic, I’m heartened because a) few music biopics are about female artists, b) those that exist tend to be about (self-destructive) solo artists and not about bands, c) even fewer tend to be about teenage girls in bands, d) Joan Jett is a feminist dykon, e) Stewart and Fanning are around the same ages as Jett and Currie, and f) the movie marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of Floria Sigismondi, a female music video director who got her start working with Marilyn Manson and shot one of my favorite Christina Aguilera clips.
So, kudos to you, the living legend you’re portraying, and your present company, Kristen. If you wanna keep your mullet after the movie wraps, I support you 110%.