Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Runaways (2010)

"This isn't about women's lib, kitties- this is about women's libido."

We're all guilty of seeing rock history in terms of a fixed canon of work divorced from its social context, and I can be as guilty as anyone. This has become more acute by this new age we live in, with music of all styles and all eras available at the touch of a screen. But the social context is key to the music, and The Runaways reminds us of that.

The Runaways may have pioneered women with guitars and begat Joan Jett and Lita Ford, but they were not some kind of proto-feminist precursor to Bikini Kill (fantastic band, incidentally) or Daisy Chainsaw. No; they were a manufactured band, manufactured by a creepy bloke set on sexualising these disturbingly young girls for the male gaze. It's disturbing watching this in the UK of 2014, remembering how young these girls were, with Operation Yewtree providing us with endless reminders of what used to go on in the 1970s. It's incredible to think that the band were all so young, yet they went on tour under the supervision of a much older man and were exposed to all of the drugs of the era in a way which surely wouldn't happen now. The golden age of rock may be over, and that may be a bad thing, but there are certainly upsides.

The quirky Dakota Fanning is superb as Cherie Currie and the show here although it's worth noting, after the tragedy that was Twilight, that Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett can actually act. We begin much earlier in the decade, as the young Cherie dares to openly show her love of David Bowie, whose androgyny as Ziggy Stardust was far more transgressive then than it is now. The rock club she visits is just a rock club; there are, as yet, no sub-genres to speak of. Disturbingly we hear Gary Glitter, and there's a disturbingly relevant subtext that probably wasn't intended.

The band is put together by Kim Fowley for entirely cynical, money-making purposes and he does not seem, given the hostile nature of their early gigs, to give a flying fig about the girls' welfare. Certainly he seems to care not a jot about Cherie's issues with her family. How much this reflects what really happened I cannot say, but the events portrayed are certainly a good argument for the urgent necessity of punk at this point.

Cherie and Joan are sympathetically portrayed, although Lita Ford is shown to be quite the bitch of legend. But the band are largely shown to be at the mercy of events, subject to forces beyond their control in a whirlwind of touring, media ("These chicks can actually play!" says one patronising headline) and rock 'n' roll excess. In this age of major labels, cocaine and, in the words of Black Sabbath, killing yourself to live, the amount of agency wielded by any band, let alone one made up of teenage girls, is questionable.

The much-needed arrival of punk is symbolically portrayed by Joan making herself a Sex Pistols t-shirt to the sound of "Pretty Vacant". Cherie is about due a bit of rebellion, bullied and overworked by Kim; is this rock 'n' roll? There is a definite message to the film in which rock 'n' roll is firmly equated with the raw capitalism of the New Right, a plausible message in a world where the Rolling Stones are actually all card-carrying Thatcherites. Sexualised pictures are taken of Cherie- a teenage girl, let us remember- while she is drugged and incapable. Feminism is here bound up with class politics, with rock stars as the downtrodden working class in gilded cages and Kim as the Gradgrind of the age.

Joan is, of course, the strong one, but a tour of Japan in which privacy is non-existent is the end of the road for a drug-frizzled Cherie; the fans breaking through the window are a rather crude metaphor for her breakdown. It's back to reality but not, ultimately, back to the band, and Cherie has to adjust back to the banality and drudgery of everyday life. We end with a sweetly awkward conversation on a radio phone-in between Cherie and a now-famous Joan Jett, showing us that the natural selection of rock 'n' roll lets some rise and others fall. This is an extraordinary film.

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