Almost from the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, savvy impresarios have recognized the potent allure of illicit sexuality in the person of a young female performer.
Early in the rock era these teen songstresses were presented in squeaky-clean fashion. The music industry’s Brenda Lees and Leslie Gores were proffered as icons of girl-next-door purity. They sang of lost love and heartbreak. Or maybe of how devoted they were to that one certain guy.
Flash forward to the late ‘90s and the advent of Britney Spears, the former Mouseketeer whose act consisted of overtly sexual hip movements, bare midriffs, and daring cleavage. Countless dirty old men could only dream that the underage Spears was the girl next door.
Bridging these two extremes were The Runaways, an LA band from the mid-‘70s.
The Runaways were pioneers: five teenage girls who played nasty rock ‘n’ roll (they didn’t just sing it ... they played their own instruments) and whose front man (er, girl), Cherie Currie, flaunted her adolescent sexuality.
Though based on Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, the film’s true center is its one major adult character: Kim Fowley, the lizard-like music promoter/manager/songwriter who put the band together and developed its image.
Fowley is played by Michael Shannon, certainly one of Hollywood’s oddest actors. Usually Shannon is asked to express the torment of mental illness (Bug, Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter); here he plays not a victim but a creepy victimizer.
Fowley, who hangs at the music clubs frequented by teens, first pairs guitarist Joan Jett (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) with drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). He then recruits Currie (child star Dakota Fanning, looking pretty grown up) to be the band’s lead singer.
Currie’s qualifications for the job are dubious, but Fowler is less interested in musical excellence than in musical notoriety, and he believes that jailbait rock is the fastest way to achieve it.
In an abandoned mobile home in a wooded lot Fowler sets up his school of rock, driving the girls to master their instruments (or at least reach a degree of competency), even loudly heckling them so they won’t crumble when confronted with the real thing.
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To tell the truth, The Runaways were a much better band than Fowley deserved. He cared far less about the music than about selling a forbidden come-hither sexuality: “This isn’t about women’s lib. It’s about women’s libidos.”
Some of the girls resisted. Jett in particular took the music seriously and rejected Fowley’s lurid image-molding (and of the five, she without doubt enjoyed the most impressive post-Runaways career).
But Currie, who seems to have had no moral or intellectual anchor, was putty in Fowley’s hands, often appearing on stage and in publicity photos in form-fitting corsets and thigh-high go-go boots.
Nor was she strong enough to resist the traditional temptations of a rock lifestyle. Booze and marijuana led to harder stuff and an addiction that she was years in shaking.
Less a celebration of rock than a cautionary tale about its dark side, The Runaways features good acting and good music.
But while filmmaker Sigismondi works hard to establish the grim realities of the rock lifestyle, the viewer is likely to find himself uncomfortably in agreement with the Machiavellian Fowley.
Yes, jailbait sells.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.