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I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are! The Runaways and Rock ‘n’ Roll Double Standards

2010 October 8

I wanna be where the boys are!
I wanna fight how the boys fight!
I wanna love how the boys love!
I wanna be where the boys are!

– The Runaways

The Runaways, a low-budget biopic dedicated to the band Joan Jett formed in the mid-Seventies with producer Kim Fowley (and music video director Floria Sigismondi‘s debut feature length) landed in cinemas months ago in the US, but has taken bloody ages to rock across the pond.  I know, because I’ve been sitting here in my London bedsit excitedly replaying its trailer ’til it got here. It’s here right now, but blink and you’ll miss it, though if you scour your Odeon Online you might catch it yet.  So even if this piece is decidedly late as film reviews go, I’ve waited so long to see the film I can’t help but post it anyway, especially given what we named this site. But most of all, this film beautifully nails the sheer level of confusion that surrounds how female pop musicians should present themselves, especially mired as we are in this business of  “sexualisation of young girls”, this debate that continues to grip feminist pundits, the Daily Mail, Mike Stock (yep, him), and everyone else in between, so let me tell you about it, even if it took me a while to see.

Image: Apparition Pictures

For every "I wanna fight how the boys fight", there's an "I am the bitch with the hot guitar". For every Queen of Noise, there's a "Come and get it, boys". But were they really only aiming at the boys? Whatever, they beat Britney for me, hands down.


It’s the summer of 1975, and a seventeen-year-old Joan Jett (a powerfully husky Kristen Stewart shooting down the Twilight-sickened nay-sayers with one shrug of her biker jacket) and fifteen-year-old Cherie Currie (a quietly turbulent Dakota Fanning) are introduced by Fowley after Jett seeks his help in putting together an all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s the age of glam rock and Bowie, of men in make-up and Suzi Quatro, but the apparent gender-bending freedom of the rock scene is only skin-deep, and the five Runaways have their work cut out. Even getting an electric guitar lesson has been a mission for Jett, who gets a funny look in an alternative rockabilly thrift store during the first ten minutes of the film for avoiding the ladies’ section, pointing at a greased-up biker-boy customer, emptying a mountain of saved-up pocket money onto the counter and asserting, “I want what he’s wearin’.”

Image: Apparition pictures

Dakota Fanning (left) and Kristen Stewart (right) rock it up as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett. Jett was an executive producer, and the script is based on Currie's memoir, Neon Angel.

Fowley, played with sleazy aplomb by Michael Shannon, is crystal clear in the rehearsal room: this, he trumpets, from underneath a layer of green eyeshadow to rival Elvira’s, “is not about women’s lib! This is about women’s libido!” He is teaching them, he explains, to think with their cocks, going so far as to point at Currie’s crotch (in between constantly calling the whole lot of them “you bitches”), and announce, “This is what the boys want! Filthy pussy.”  The girls – and most of them are barely legal, which Fowley quite openly celebrates as a “jail-fuckin’-bait, jack-fuckin’-pot” – grit their teeth and push on through most of this in a dreamy, sunlit, grainy-retro-technicolor montage.  Currie is shy at first, but threatened with the sack, plays ball.  Jett is determined to rock, and will do anything to get there – or rather, will allow Fowley to make Cherie do anything to get there.  And Fowley has his cake and eats it when they get signed, later declaring that actually, it’s always been about “empowerment, man – Aphrodite, Cleopatra, Eurydice! No more second-class status, sitting at concerts with asshole boyfriends!” Eurydice is an interesting choice.  If memory serves, she got killed by a snake she didn’t see coming. What happens to our heroines is similarly insidious, as Currie and the girls struggle to meet Fowley’s ever sexier marketing demands whilst also maintaining any kind of musical credibility, or any sense that they own their own sexuality, or the presentation of it.

As the film gathers speed, it focuses not on the fever pitch of rock ‘n’ roll excess – something it’s been called bland for – but on the mounting tension between the girls as they struggle to manage the problem of sexing it up for the lads versus rock credibility rating.  Very much a double biopic, its narrow focus on Jett and Currie does exclude the other Runaways-alumni, but it’s a film that’s full of visual dualities that  splits the double standards the girls encounter right open in a physical sense – Joan is the “credible one”, perhaps, but she needs Currie on board. They need each other. Currie is pilloried by her bandmates for taking on semi-clothed photoshoots – the same bandmates who urge her to “just sing the line, okay?” in a stressful rehearsal for Cherry Bomb.  Stewart’s portrayal of Jett, even as she pours scorn on her friend, doesn’t seem unaware, even quietly, that it is precisely the pervy spotlight on Currie that lets her be the tomboyish backbone of the band, the one who doesn’t have to do it.  Quod me nutrit me destruit, indeed.

Image: Apparition Pictures

Sure, it walks the line between titillation and criticism. How else do you tell this story, though?

Occasionally the script clunks – the scenes with Currie’s family never feel quite right – but the film is at its most raw and heartfelt when Fanning and Stewart are on screen together.  There’s been a lot of squawking about nineteen-year-old Stewart and fifteen-year-old Fanning’s “steamy” scenes in this film, but they don’t feel like they’re intended to be purely titillating.  The inner life of the relationship between Currie and Jett in this film exists as a kind of hideaway separate space to the public image of the band, and not in a pruriently-presented, hidden-forbidden secret-sappho way either. Yes, they get it on, no, it’s not explicitly filmed (Fanning is not, after all, of age for that kind of treatment), but most importantly it’s completely uncommented on by the rest of the cast, and neither Jett nor Currie approach proceedings with one jot of identity-angst about it. Jett, particularly, is seen kissing men and women without comment before she even crosses paths with Currie, and the sexual element of her relationship with Currie isn’t tacked on for cheap thrills. In one particularly poignant scene, Currie wakes up in hospital after some archetypal rockstar-bingeing. Jett sharpens gently into focus, sitting stalwartly in a chair by the bed, presumably having sat there all night, and eventually climbs into bed in a foetal position next to her. They barely touch, but the tenderness between them is tangible.

This open, comfortable attitude to sexual experimentation seems to extend to the rest of the band, too. Another rather comical but sweet short scene sees Jett stood outside a shower cubicle, attempting to advise drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) on how to masturbate. “It’s not working!” protests West, who has started off with Jett’s initial advice of “Think Leif Garrett, Scott Biao”. Jett’s immediate reply, without even blinking, is “How about Farrah Fawcett? Do you like her?” This appears from the reaction in the shower to be a winner, and Jett punches the air in triumph.

But hold the phone.  Isn’t this, nonetheless, still a bit have-your-cake?  Here’s a film in which Dakota Fanning cavorts around in her underwear to make a point about the sexualisation of teenage girls. In this regard, not everyone’s felt quite so rapturous about it.

But I think they pull it off (no pun intended), mainly by virtue of the attention paid to the inner life of the girls alongside said cavorting. The distance between this and Fowley’s vision yawns open as Currie finally walks out. As Jett erupts in frustrated rage, our viewpoint pans back, and Fowley is laughing from behind the studio booth window. “Rock ‘n’ roll, baby,” he crows as Jett trashes the place, finally realising the extent to which Currie has been pushed and the fact that without this, her dreams cannot be realised. Even as she protests, Fowley draws a frame around her and finds a way to sell it. The band look like caged animals, yes – but they spit, they rage, and they ultimately find peace, Jett going solo and battling 23 rejections for I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll before scoring a hit.

What happens to the girls once their fantasy sex-kitten image is well and truly up and running? Well, the scene in which a coked-up Currie cops off with one of the roadies (as Jett hammers on the door yelling, “open up, Cherie, I gotta piss!”)  is particularly uncomfortable, and is the first sex scene I’ve ever seen in a movie about rock ‘n’ roll that managed to make the rock star feel like the groupie.  The roadie almost steers Currie around like a doll as he coaxes a snog, and more, out of her, and it’s creepy as hell – especially framed as it is by the film’s opening scene in which we realise Currie has only just started her periods.  Granted, by the time the sex kicks off it’s probably two years later, but it’s harder to persuade yourself that a year or two has passed in a film with such a dreamy management of time – we’re barely aware of it passing, and everything feels fiercely, rawly in the moment. Little bursts of guitar feedback separate scenes, along with blurry shots of winding corridors which recur increasingly as the fever pitch sets in and the band implodes. Perhaps Currie’s infamous white basque in itself is titillating in places, but it’s not a film that takes that aim as a starting point.

The best bit?  We can say, as the Evening Standard did, that this film reminds us that the “sexualisation of teenage girls and pop music” debate is older than everybody cares to remember, that right now, quite arguably, nothing’s much better or worse than it was then, that this film is as cautionary as it is inspiring whether it has its cake or not. We can say all of that. Perhaps it’s true.

On the other hand, hands up who’s still inspired, at least by Jett’s eventual triumph? I’m off to pick up my guitar.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 8, 2010

    excellent review! I loved it but Joan Jett is my favourite musician! However I think even girls who haven’t heard of The Runaways can take some inspiration from it.

  2. November 17, 2010

    So looking forward to seeing this!

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