Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Runaways: Floria Sigismondi

Written by Lisa Bensing
    Active Image   Director Floria Sigismondi grew to fame directing music videos for modern and indie rock bands. I have a clear memory of her photographic video for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”: lightning quick editing, close cropping, unfocused lenses, and low-angle shots. Likewise, Sigismondi’s direction for The Runaways includes these trademark camera techniques. In addition, her screenplay is based almost entirely on former lead singer Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. While watching this “biopic” of the all-girl teen rock band, these creative perspectives should inform your expectations.

Director Floria Sigismondi grew to fame directing music videos for modern and indie rock bands. I have a clear memory of her photographic video for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People:” lightning quick editing, close cropping, unfocused lenses, and low-angle shots. Likewise, Sigismondi’s direction for The Runaways includes these trademark camera techniques. In addition, her screenplay is based almost entirely on former lead singer Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. While watching this “biopic” of the all-girl teen rock band, these creative perspectives should inform your expectations.

The Runaways
is not the real story of the band. It is the story of two teenage girls growing up in a man’s rock and roll world. And the depth of its storytelling is only as deep as the limits of Currie’s middle-aged memory. Her recollection of Kim Fowley, record producer and narcissist, reveals a sex-obsessed dictator whose possessive grasp on the band paved the way to clashing egos and ultimately, its explosive breakup. There is also heavy emphasis on Currie’s family life: self-involved actress mother, sweetly supportive twin sister, and absentee alcoholic father.

The film focuses on Currie and Joan Jett’s teenage years in the Runaways as they grow up experimenting with sex, alcohol, and drugs. The first quarter of the film sets up Currie and Jett as two lost souls—“salt and pepper,” as drummer Sandy West calls them in the film—who meet by chance at an LA club one night. Currie is the dreamer, a stage presence who impersonates David Bowie at a school talent show amidst the backdrop of family dysfunction. Jett is the musician, defiantly “plugging in” her guitar and wearing men’s clothes. She is depicted as a sort of street urchin, with no strings holding her down. No allusion is made to Jett’s family (a major flaw of the film).

Throughout this movie, such underdevelopment is not uncommon. Since this is Currie’s story, we don’t get a full picture of the band. In addition, Lita Ford, the Runaways’ lead guitarist, distanced herself from the film during production. Her character in the film is considerably undeveloped as well. Sandy West passed away in 2006, so she was unable to contribute to the film’s production, and the five bassists are portrayed through a composite character. There is no explanation for why and how all five original members managed to wind up in the band.

Cue Sigismondi’s expertise for this one. She is a master of jumping time and space; her storytelling is purely visual, and it is unapologetic for any lapse in explanation. Her instincts may succeed in short-form music videos and commercials, but in this feature film they do the story no justice.

Then there is the music. This is Sigismondi’s comfort zone, and as a result, scenes of the band performing are among the strongest in the film. In fact, Currie’s corseted performance of “Cherry Bomb” on stage is breathtaking.

Along with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, The Runaways is filled with dialogue and rock and roll film clichés (Maybe “Cherry Bomb” was written in five minutes, but the magical simplicity with which it is written in the film is hard to believe). The film, however, succeeds as a period piece; makeup, hair, and clothes are impeccably 1970s, and the sets recall Southern California at a time when anything was possible. Dakota Fanning is a tremendous force as Cherie Currie—her transformative performance made it easy to forget that she was fifteen at the time of filming.

In the end, the making of what is considered the first all-female rock band is less a priority for this movie than the inexplicable friendship and love between Currie and Jett. See it for the fun of the experience, but don’t expect a well-rounded biopic.

Share this post