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The Runaways – It’s a Long Way to the Top if you Want to Rock ’n’ Roll

Aug 14, 2010 by D. J. Schwartz

The Runways were one of the first all-girl Rock ’n’ roll bands early on. The movie is a mixture of fiction and truth to tell the story of real life band members Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the manipulative and Svengali manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon).

Since there’ s no job application or career outline to become a successful Rock ’n’ Roller, the girls in the Runaways had immediate handicaps—they didn’t know anybody and they were an all girl Rock Band which back then was a rare enough commodity.

Both Jett’s character (Stewart) and Currie’s (Fanning) came from broken and or severely dysfunctional homes which probably was instrumental in propelling their drive and ambition to “make it in the music industry.”

As these things are and usually haphazard, the marriage of the band was made in a shotgun style, as Fowley’s character, Shannon, not only picked the members of the Runaways, he also peppered their practices which such notables as “Guys don’t like Rock ’n’ Roll to listen to–they want to screw to it,” and “Sweethearts, let your balls hang out,” and other such idioms as “This is not about women’s lib,” he cows, a rooster girding his chicks for battle, “It’s about women’s libido.”

From the impromptu jam sessions, and squeezing the learning curve of the girls, the Runaways hit songs included Cherry Bomb, ‘Queens of Noise,” “Rock n Roll”, “Neon Angeles (On the Road to Ruin”), and “Born to be Bad.”

Fowley’s insistence on a sleazy jailbait image for the group made it easy for the press to dismiss them as nothing but a tasteless adolescent fantasy — an impression bolstered at the time by the admittedly erratic quality of their music. But in the end, the Runaways’ sound and attitude proved crucially important in paving the way for female artists to crank up the volume on their guitars and rock as hard as the boys; plus, they produced one undeniably classic single in the rebel-girl manifesto, the song "Cherry Bomb.” (In the movie, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie recorded a remake of the original.)

But, that frank talk and advice notably and ignobly let the girls in the band know that they would not be treated differently than guys in the rough and tumble jungle of the Rock ’n’ Roll world and ethos, and “they better get used to it.” In that he was not lying but was leading them into battle.

From the Runaways flowed the distaff rock bands that followed: Bangles and Go-Go’s and Breeders and Sleater-Kinney and Donnas– all the way to the tomboys playing in the garage down at the end of your block.

Nonetheless, as the first successful all-girl hard rock band, The Runaways were hugely influential. Its band members of guitarists Jett and Lita Ford, drummer Sandy West, singer-keyboardist Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox were to be the model of one of the most famous all-girl groups in history.

As to how Fowley (Shannon) treated the girls in the band, he did exploit their sexuality, satiated his need for money at their expense, and made the singer, Currie (Fanning) the lead singer into its highlight of the band as its sex kitten, when the band really was all about their music. Artistic licenses all gone a bit too far…..

Pause must be given as to the universal difficulty of all artists who want to make it and have to suffer the trials and tribulations of their mettle in their pursuit.

In The Runaways, the story is no different:

Although at times compelling both in its musical adventure, the protagonists’ struggles with sex, family, and the grind of touring, their nerves are always on edge and drugs and sex were their antidote.

Jett’s (Stewart) smolders in the role and her dark and sultry androgynous looks come out second to her ambition and grounding. This faculty is rare and since Joan Jett was an executive consultant to the movie, her role in the finished product seems honest and biopic.

The rest of Joan’s success in the music business is testament to her individual strength, talent, drive, and vision.

The movie has many noteworthy scenes, many dramatic, many humorous, and the music is pure Rock’n’Roll bliss.

Some of the less pleasant issues have to do with the parts of life and the music scene that are sleazy and unproductive yet which always follow around musicians so there’s no surprise there.

In another break-a-away role, the band’s manager Fowley (Shannon) is equal parts, manager, leader, Svengali, slime ball, and the one who prepared them to face both the crowds and media hard, fierce, and in-your-face. Without him, it would have been doubtless that they would have achieved what they did.

Currie’s character (Fanning), who was at times the brilliant lead singer, became overly exploited and chemically dependent and it was only a matter of time before she would fall down and never to rise again as a rock star.

Some interesting tidbits from the movie are the old Rodney Bigenheimer club on Sunset reproduced in the movie where Jett’s (Stewart’s) character was brave enough to seek out Fowley, and where Currie’s (Fanning), spent time dancing to Bowie songs.

Other interesting parts of the story’s scenes take place in the tiny trailer where much of the drama and highs and lows of the girls playing takes place, and their travels to Japan and the mobs that followed them make for the interesting fable that sometime dreams do come true.

As the movie is the rise and fall of the Runaways, its Silver Lining is that Joan Jett (Stewart) was the only band member to climb from the ashes to keep going to create Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who shot to stardom in the 1980’s and never looked back.

As many of the Runaways moved on to other projects, bands, and interests, the brief time that they did spend together is fodder for history.

An interesting period piece topic and rock story biopic, it’s replete with much hard-hitting rock and twists and turns along the way. Adapted from Cherie Curry’s memoir, “Neon Angels,” it’s an era gone by brought back to life with mixed results but never loses sight of the fact that “It’s a long way to the top if you want to Rock and Roll.”

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