After a run of high-quality films up to this particular screening, it’s unfortunately been left to Bad Reputation to bring things down quite majorly by being the first out and-out-bomb of my Festival experience this year. Kevin Kerslake’s documentary about the life and times of trailblazing rock star Joan Jett is a complete misfire. Kerslake and Joel Marcus (the latter of whom wrote and edited the film) have put together a rock-doc that’s utterly petrified of displaying even a single blemish on its subject’s face, ironically so concerned with avoiding giving Joan a bad reputation that the result is barely more illuminating than a cursory Wiki scroll.
Admittedly, part of the problem may be that I have been interested in Joan Jett from my teenage years, this bewitching punk figure gladly gatecrashing the testosterone-stenched Boy’s Club of rock and roll with a shredding guitar and as pure a couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude as one could have. So, I already knew all the hits that this crowdpleasing – and it is crowdpleasing, it went over a treat with the audience of my public screening (which I am not ashamed to admit I chose as my screening method in the vain hope that Joan herself would make a Q&A appearance) – stub-article played faithfully in-time. Joan’s first guitar, her run-ins with skeevy industry powerhouse Kim Fowley, the formation and disintegration of all-female rock band The Runaways, Jett’s solo career being rejected by 21 labels before they tried self-releasing, her vital co-signs to Riot Grrrl icon (and my personal hero) Kathleen Hanna, her status as an influential feminist and punk icon.
There isn’t an inherent problem with touching on these things, of course; not everyone is going to be me, coming to the film mentally carrying the biographies of The Runaways and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts in the back of their minds. But what IS a problem is how Bad Reputation ends up light on substance and details. No stories behind the music, lip-service only paid to Joan’s upbringing, glossing over the unstable career trajectory she’s had over the years. Neither the interviewees nor Joan herself (weirdly) have much insight into events or any new stories to tell, instead reverting to generic soundbites about how Joan could shred or how “if you told [her, she] couldn’t do something, then [she’s] gonna do it.” The allegations by Lita Ford about Kim Fowley’s rape of her (and potential complicity of Jett and Runaways’ singer Cherrie Currie), discussions about Joan’s reticence to play in girl bands after The Runaways, and any deeper discussion about the often-deplorable Fowley (a Joss Whedon-style feminist if there ever was one) beyond his being a rebel who ripped Jett off are all conspicuous by their absence.
Again, none of that is an inherently bad thing, but combined with Bad Reputation‘s fast-moving surface-level approach to covering its subject’s history, it means the film runs out of steam by the hour mark and eventually resorts to just listing things that Joan’s done since the 80s for the last half-hour. It pains me to compare the two, mainly because it goes against the ethos of the latter film and is what male critics like myself do with works by/about women all the time, but Bad Reputation especially suffers if one has seen Kathleen Hanna’s documentary, The Punk Singer. It too was borderline hagiographic, but it did so as a counteractive for Hanna’s reputation, a cult figure vilified through her life by the establishment whose contributions to feminist culture were largely unsung. And when The Punk Singer was finished stating Hanna’s bonafides, it shifted to her personal struggles with Lyme Disease for the last half hour. Bad Reputation never makes that kind of switch, so Joan ends up worshipped blandly as an icon for 95 minutes but still remains unknown as a person when the credits roll. She deserves better.