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Review: 'The Runaways'

Driving rock sound track makes up for very limited insights into character

Posted: March 18, 2010 4:44 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2010 6:00 a.m.

Dakota Fanning, left, and Riley Keough are shown in a scene from "The Runaways," which opens today.

 
"The Runaways," chronicling the rise and fall of Joan Jett's first band, easily could have degenerated into a movie-length music video, with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning merely glam-rock poseurs.

Yet music-video veteran Floria Sigismondi makes an impressive feature-film directing debut, crafting a brisk, engaging portrait, the story making up for its lack of insight into teen rebel Jett and her bandmates with driving, infectious rhythm.

For Stewart as Jett and Fanning as Runaways singer Cherie Currie, the movie is a smart showcase to help them break out of their molds as they take on more adult roles, Stewart aiming for life after "Twilight" and Fanning seeking to graduate from her position as Hollywood's doe-eyed princess of child stars.

Both have done other mature roles - Stewart was a stripper and hooker in the upcoming "Welcome to the Rileys," Fanning played a teen rape victim in "Hounddog." Yet "The Runaways" will be an eye-opener for their fans, with Stewart and Fanning hurling themselves into the roles, their descent into the seedy 1970s world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll including a passionate kiss they share in a love scene.

Though based on Currie's memoir "Neon Angel," "The Runaways" is much more the story of Jett, who was an executive producer on the film and on set for almost the entire shoot. Currie was on hand to help the filmmakers, as well, but the movie, like the short-lived Runaways, is of greatest interest as a prelude to Jett's later stardom fronting the Blackhearts.

Sigismondi, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story in a simple, direct, chronological fashion as teenagers Jett and Currie, guided by flamboyant and foul-tongued manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), lead an all-girl band that can rock with the best of the boys. Their band included guitarist Lita Ford, later a hard-rock star on her own.

From their start in 1975 through their finish in 1978, the Runaways made five albums, toured relentlessly in the United States, Europe and Japan, and achieved superstardom in the latter, where their anthem "Cherry Bomb" was a smash hit.

While an entertaining evocation of the '70s scene, "The Runaways" plays out predictably like many another tale of a promising band undone by those pesky "creative differences."

Stewart's Jett is the backbone, the one who really wants it, the one born for the life of a rock star. The movie's high point comes after a period of lonely introspection by Jett as she realizes her dream of the Runaways is fading, and the movie gives way to the sizzling guitar intro of "I Love Rock N' Roll," a hit a few years later for her and the Blackhearts.

Fanning has the showy role as Currie, strutting the stage in lingerie and acting out with a drugged-up punk's lust for bad behavior. The character rings a bit hollowly, though, the perspective coming mainly through Jett's eyes, with little to say about how and why Currie was so quickly seduced and spat out by the rock life.

Stewart is the steady hand, her Jett certainly more impassioned than mopey Bella in the "Twilight" movies but muted next to the outrageous antics Fanning gets to carry out. As manager Fowley, Shannon is funny and often more outlandish than Fanning's Currie, though in his case, the character can lapse into a caricature of a crazy man behind the scenes.

Some touching moments develop in Currie's relations with her twin sister (Riley Keough, a strong presence as the bitter sibling stuck at home in a dead-end job). Currie's absentee mother is played in a fleeting role by Tatum O'Neal, who knows something about the perils of youthful stardom, peaking with her Academy Awards win for "Paper Moon" at age 10, barely a year before the Runaways got started.

"The Runaways" is loaded front to start with music, from Currie's amusing David Bowie impersonation at a school talent show to "Crimson and Clover" and other Blackhearts hits.

Stewart and Fanning handle the vocals admirably, their live performances blending seamlessly with actual Runaways recordings on the soundtrack. Whatever else you might say about "The Runaways," it's a movie that definitely loves rock ‘n' roll.

"The Runaways," an Apparition release, is rated R for language, drug use and sexual content - all involving teens. Running time: 102 minutes.

Two and a half stars out of four.

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