There are movies with lesbian subtext (Buzzfeed wrote about it just this week), and then there are movies that don’t need to bother with the subtext at all. Enter the The Runaways. 

The Runaways (2010)

Rock ‘n’ roll is a blood sport, a sport of men… This ain’t women’s lib, this is women’s libido!

I had an editing teacher at film school tell me once that irony was a dishonest practice, and that I should just be honest when making a movie.

I disagree.

I think Hollywood manufactured catharsis is the more dishonest practice, and that the most effective movies – the movies that truly have something to say – often say it best with a heavy dose of irony.

The Runaways is all about that irony.

A cynicism toward the music industry, the men that run it, the terror it has put women through, and the way it believes it can manufacture “girl power.”

In that way, The Runaways is the kind of bio-pic that comes around once in a blue moon: The music is secondary to the relationships of its characters and the film itself means more than its subject ever did. It is a movie with a message delivered not through cathartic, emotional means, but through a mocking, sneering, sometimes angry irony. If you doubt it, just write down everything Michael Shannon’s Kim Fowley says. Then decide whether this movie takes any of it seriously.

Joan Jett’s band was the product of a man and a chauvinistic music industry.

The music itself was no more than power chords and a contrived “look” to go with it. In musical history, The Runaways aren’t much more than a catchy single (Cherry Bomb) and an exploited group of girls too young to graduate high school. But Joan Jett became a bona fide rock star, regardless of whether she musically measures up to her counterparts.

The film doesn’t shy away from it either – in a guitar lesson, Kristin Stewart as Jett laughs off any real attempt at learning (granted, the asshole teaching her thinks “girls don’t play electric guitar”), and simply wants to plug-in. Her chords are hastily played, and she wants, more than anything, just to get to the rock ‘n’ roll part already. Dakota Fanning’s Currie claims herself to be a singer because she “won” a lip-synching competition. She doesn’t sing, but she has presence. Musicality is secondary to the performance. To the sheer feeling of it.

In the capable of hands of writer-director Floria Sigismondi, the story of these women is elevated beyond the quality or staying power of their music – The Runaways is a film that takes the fighting spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, punk, even a little bit of riot grrl, and elevates women to a position of pure power. It makes Joan Jett a symbol of the fight, Cherie Currie a victim of the worst of men, and Kim Fowley a walking, talking cartoon of the male attitude toward women.

Cherie Currie in The Runaways by artist Alex Landers | A rock 'n roll biopic about Joan Jett's original band, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi | Full review at onecriticalbitch.com
Cherie Currie

The Runaways believes women are at their best in the company of other women.

Where another filmmaker might have seen an opportunity to exploit the lesbianism/bisexual nature of a girl band (and Joan Jett’s questionable sexuality), Sigismondi doesn’t fuck around with her depiction of female relationships: They are the rock by which girls find real power.

In The Runaways, women’s relationships with men are half-hearted at best. Joan Jett makes out with a dude on a car because she’s bored, leaving him quickly to approach a record producer who can get her where she needs to go. Cherie Currie has an encounter with a roadie in a bathroom, but we never see the actual event, nor does it seem to matter. In the shower, Jett teaches Sandy West how to masturbate; unable to get off to thought of guys she has a crush on, Jett suggests Farrah Fawcett – the orgasm comes quickly, because as West says “who doesn’t” like Farah?

In fact, the only on-screen sex in The Runaways is the gender-fluid Fowley and a faceless girl, played for laughs as she’s literally banged off a table, and a genuine, heartfelt kiss and presumed encounter between Jett and Currie. Their relationship is the most caring, honest one in the film. Whether they are “lesbians” or not is irrelevant – their connection represents an empowerment that resonates beyond the music, beyond men, beyond the status quo.

The most important thing is the band.

That band is other women. The Runaways dissolve, Cherie Currie ends up in rehab, and Kim Fowley calls them “a conceptual rock project that failed.” But Jett finds a new band, pushes herself to stardom without Fowley, and Cherie? She solidifies her bond with Joan with a simple phone call. Whether the music was ever any good is irrelevant – the band is the thing. Banding together is the thing.

Best Shot/Scene:

The performance of Cherry Bomb. Sigismondi directs this as well as the girls perform it. It’s bad-ass. And just your luck – there’s a clip!

Watch Cherry Bomb:

Other Things to Notice: 

Riley Keough plays Cherie’s sister, Marie. If you don’t know her, she’s Elvis Presley’s granddaughter (daughter of Lisa Marie). If you do know her, you know she’s been doing quite well lately. See her performances in Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike, Jack and Diane.

Please stick around for the end credit “Where Are They Now’s,” because Cherie Currie is now a chainsaw artist. Really.

Michael Shannon. It’s a toss-up between him and Tom Hardy for me over who’s the hardest working character actor around right now. This was one of the most unbelievable (yet, somehow, knowing Kim Fowley, very believable) performances I’ve ever seen. He is simultaneously overpowering/godlike and a complete whack job. Everything he says is a lie, but he represents the establishment. This is perfect casting.

Most quotable film of the last several years, IMO. But you better be into that evil, evil irony to best enjoy it (“We practice in a trailer in the Valley,” “You can go fold tacos with your sister,” “Well, there she is – Mary, Mother of God,” to name just a few of my personal favorites).

If You Like it, Watch:

Thirteen (2003): 

Before she took on Twilight (yuck), Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote and directed this insane, mean little film about two teenage girls becoming the very worst of themselves. It deals with all the drugs and sexual energy of The Runaways, but minus the band, and with a terrifying amount of realism. With Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, and Nikki Reed.

Frank (2014):

A movie about a band a lot different from The Runaways. Michael Fassbender stars, but from underneath a giant paper-mache head. It’s about rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s more about perceived identity, unity, and mental illness. It’s funny and heartbreaking and most of all, moving.

Switchblade Sisters (1975): 

B-movie legend Jack Hill wrote and directed this hyper-lesbian exploitation film. Not for everyone, but if you like a little camp mixed in with your girl power, this is going to work for you. Also, note the stylistic influence of exploitation on The Runaways, from script to style to, you guessed it, irony.

The Runaways is a rock 'n roll biopic about Joan Jett's original band, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi | Full review at onecriticalbitch.com
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