Anyone who sees unbridgeable divides among various types of popular music need only look at the music biopic to see conclusive evidence that every genre is essentially the same: From country to rock to punk to jazz, musicians of all stripes have been effectively reduced to bullet-pointed clichés by filmmakers. Music-video director Floria Sigismondi, making her feature-film debut with The Runaways, dutifully lines up the same old stock elements to tell the story of the teen-girl rock band that had a brief but influential career in the 1970s: They’re poor dreamers yearning to express themselves; they’re tentatively constructing the elements of their big hit song; they’re playing small clubs and paying their dues; they’re suddenly super-famous; they’re on drugs; they’re fighting with each other; their career is over. Cue the end-title cards informing the audience what each major character is up to these days.
Those major characters in The Runaways include only two band members, lead singer Cherie Currie (Fanning) and guitarist/songwriter Joan Jett (Stewart), who form the core of the band as Los Angeles teens in 1975. The movie’s third key player is manager/guru Kim Fowley (Shannon), who recruits the band members and guides The Runaways to success using equal parts intimidation and encouragement. Neglecting the other Runaways (including guitarist Lita Ford, who went on to become a huge star in the ’80s) allows Sigismondi to more efficiently focus on the rock-movie tropes, with the relationship between Jett and Currie at the heart of the film.
Fanning and Stewart do a decent job of embodying both awkward adolescence and arrogant rock stardom, and the connection between the two at times feels genuine. But they’re let down by Sigismondi’s pedestrian script, full of too-obvious set pieces and bits of dialogue (“Girls don’t play electric guitars,” a super-square music teacher tells Jett early in the film). When Sigismondi the writer lets Sigismondi the director cut loose and shoot impressionistic moments set to pulsating rock music, the result is as thrilling as the best of the director’s music-video work. Going about the business of the familiar, plodding story, though, it’s about as unadventurous as Jett’s lame-o music teacher.