Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
If the musical biopic genre zeroes in on characters with long, complex lives, then there is something incredibly different in how The Runaways explores the career of a band that was very much fuelled by its youthfulness. The nature of its story means that The Runaways will not go too far beyond its late 70s/early eighties setting, but what is also incredibly refreshing about its whole approach is just how genuinely feminine the entire film feels, and for once it is filtered through a female viewpoint behind the camera.
Dreamgirls was a genuinely wonderful film, as was Coal Miner’s Daughter, but their stories of being female and successful were filtered through male directors. Admittedly talented male directors, but you couldn’t help but feel what they might have been like if told by storytellers of their own gender or, in the case of Dreamgirls, race.
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Given the punk rock energy of the band in question, there is pleasing punk air about The Runaways. The poster is adorned by the presence of its stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and it promises much which the film fully delivers on in a massively entertaining way, even if, as is sometimes the case with these things, it is embellishing the tale for dramatic purposes. The career trajectory of Kristen Stewart has been one of the most fascinating in recent Hollywood history. There always seems to be surprise whenever she stars in a film and amazes the audience and critics with the complexities of her performances, simply because she was the star of the Twilight franchise at one time.
Like her co-star in that film, Robert Pattinson, the near-hysterical and feverish mainstream success of that five-film series perhaps prompted her to want to make more interesting and unexpected decisions when the vampire saga came to its (bonkers) conclusion. Her recent acclaim and award success as Princess Diana in Spencer feels as if it’s been something that her work has been building to over the last decade, and for anyone who has seen Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria or TJ Leroy (an underrated watch that needs to be discovered as soon as possible), then Spencer was just the latest great performance in a career that has been full of them.
Starting her career as a child actor, and who made an early appearance as Jodie Foster’s daughter in David Fincher’s tightly wound Panic Room, there is something apt about her starring as Joan Jett alongside Dakota Fanning as Cherie Curie, in a film about a female rock band having to contend with success at a youthful age as they head into the early throes of adulthood. Fanning also began her career as a child, making a memorable impact in sci-fi miniseries Taken, and then in an emotive turn opposite Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s intense kidnap thriller Man on Fire. Being child actors that amassed considerable acclaim and success at a young age plays into Floria Sigismondi’s film in a way that it might not have done had she cast any other actresses in the roles.
For its first half, The Runaways captures that burst of discovery and creativity so vividly, and like so much of the musical biopic genre, there is fun to be had in seeing the elements come together in creating a band that makes an iconic impact. As managed by the near Svengali-like Kim Fowley, played with characteristic and memorable intensity by Michael Shannon, the band achieves fame fast, and the film is at its most memorable in the writing and first performance of ‘Cherry Bomb.’
It’s those initial scenes with the formation of the band that sees Sigismondi play into the story beats that one expects from a film about a band, but it somewhat turns away from being the type of musical biopic that you would expect and instead becomes something more akin to a coming-of-age film. It has the fun you would expect with the utilisation of that back catalogue of songs for its soundtrack, but there is a different type of beating heart here in comparison to so many other stories that fall into this genre.
The more success the band finds, the more an inevitable schism develops as the press focuses more on Cherie compared to the rest of the band. While it might be easy to criticise the film for solely focusing at times on a female band at loggerheads and angered by petty jealousies, there is something real and raw about how Sigismondi portrays these moments, given the young ages of her protagonists. That these roles are being played by not only Fanning and Stewart but also Ali Shawkat and Scout Taylor-Compton, who were also child actors, makes these sequences play differently than if they were just played by twenty-somethings who had only recently started their careers as adults.
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There are the inevitable falls into the pits of substance abuse that are part and parcel of so many films of this ilk, but the film is more subtle and less hysterical about it, and finds poignancy in the midst of it all, eventually building to a final scene of beautifully portrayed awkwardness that feels as real as anything as you would find in the world of pop/rock biopics. So many films that deal with rock or pop stars feel like dream machines of the sort that even when they feature moments of raw anguish or their characters falling from grace, still feel like glossy portrayals of the joys of success, the success that can still be retained in some for even after a temporary fall.
While Joan Jett went on to further success, Cherie Currie did not. The film ends with her working in a bakery, her life far away from a world that Jett managed to keep up with, and yet there is no tragic undercurrent to the conclusion of Cherie’s story; the film is based on her book after all, and her smile at listening to Joan’s latest song says so much with so little. It was a fleeting moment, but it happened and it was hers.
It sums up the film in a lovely nutshell.