"The Runaways": Back in the Spotlight

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett in "The Runaways," a film about the first breakthrough all-girl rock band.
A new movie sets out to tell the story of the 1970s all-girl rock band The Runaways . . . and our David Edelstein will tell you about it.

"The Runaways" isn't a great movie, but it has a great, resounding theme.

It's about female empowerment (Yay! ) and female exploitation (Boo! ), and how in some cases they sit side-by-side and seesaw.

The Runaways were the first breakthrough all-girl rock band. They formed in 1975 and fell apart four years later. And before you say, "Wha--? That late?" remember: The rock and roll revolution was a guy thing. There were female vocalists, folkies, all-girl singing pop groups.

But chicks with electric guitars? Rock chicks? Not many.

The group Fanny was amazing but didn't break out. Neither at the time did Suzi Quatro.

And then there was . . . well, let's see, Josie and the Pussycats, the Archie comics spin-off. Long tails, and ears for hats!

The Runaways were California teens, and for Joan Jett, Sandy West and Lita Ford, girl-rock meant snarling and grinding guitars and flouting the rule that said girls were just the groupies.

Kristen Stewart plays Jett. She buys a motorcycle jacket, writes songs, fools around with other girls. It's exhilarating.

But she doesn't make the rules. The group was assembled - packaged - by self-described L.A. rock impresario Kim Fowley, played onscreen by Michael Shannon, who's actually a lot less creepy than the real guy. He wants a little blonde at the center, like 15-year-old Cherie Currie, played by then-15-year-old Dakota Fanning.

And here's the paradox: Fowley isn't thinking feminist empowerment. He's thinking, and I apologize for the term, "jailbait": half-naked underage girls acting dirty and available for an audience more leering than liberated.

That tension is what helped destroy the band.

The movie's second half, with its drugs and sex and Fowley abuse, is lurid - that's a good thing - but unfocused.

Although Stewart is first-billed, "The Runaways" is based on Currie's slim memoir, and Jett is mostly a bystander. You can feel the child-star Fanning's relish in shocking us with her sexuality, and that's exciting. But it's also, because she's a minor, disturbing.

That tension is "The Runaways"'s most fascinating paradox: how our culture can turn female empowerment into an icky commodity, and how girls - both rockers and teen actresses - can play along.

For more info:
The Runaways (Music Web Site)
"The Runaways" (Official Movie Web Site)
The Projectionist (David Edelstein's Movie Blog)