Hello Daddy, Hello Mom
Girl Rock Band Comes Alive, Again
By Cole Smithey
Based on Cherrie Currie's poorly written memoir "Neon Angel: The Cherrie Currie Story," about her crash-and-burn experiences with producer Kim Fowley's manufactured all-girl rock band, "The Runaways" is a textbook guilty pleasure. Dakota Fanning does her best work to date as Cherrie, the band's bi-sexual lead singer to Kristen Stewart's tomboy-channeling of guitarist Joan Jett. Jett's overshadowing solo career after the Runaways 1979 break-up makes you want the movie to be more about her. But it's Michael Shannon who steals the show as the famously eccentric and foul-mouthed rock 'n' roll impresario Kim Fowley. Scenes of Fowley taunting the girls by throwing dog-poo, insults, and dirty names to extract the in-your-face performance the band became famous for, are riveting. Sadly, Shannon's mascara-heavy characterization gets swept under the carpet when the newly-formed band goes on tour, ostensibly because Fowley never wanted to leave his Los Angeles hometown to play chaperone to "dog meat." Debut filmmaker Floria Sigismondi is keen on telescoping meta meaning from the micro details of the band's '70s era rock lifestyle. It's a hit-or-miss technique that works well enough. Deep lesbian kisses, avid drug abuse, and irresponsible parents play into the Dionysian hand dealt by androgynous rock gods like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, whose music figures prominently in the film's glam-heavy soundtrack.
The Runaways veers into biopic territory on more than a few occasions. Cherrie Currie's screwed up suburban home life, with an alcoholic father and adoring twin sister, is portrayed for the soul-crushing effect such an atmosphere brings. The film works better as a coming-of-age reverie about a group of tomboys who were tutored by a punk rock Pygmalion to write songs that would outrage parents and pique the testosterone of teenaged boys who didn't believe girls could rock.
"Hello Daddy, Hello Mom
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb
Hello world I'm your wild girl
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb"
Watching Michael Shannon prod his underage girls into writing those still-explosive lyrics for the band's most famous song "Cherry Bomb," in an abandoned trailer home, speaks volumes about punk's do-it-yourself ethos. It's an objective that's gone missing from society for so long that the scene is shocking for the integrity it exemplifies. Fowley's down-and-dirty rock 'n' roll boot camp embodies the band's musical growth with the singular goal of packaging them into a product. Where the film comes off the rails is exactly where the band hit the skids. Jealously and laziness take their toll just when the Runaways are enjoying a career that any girl with a guitar would kill for. The irony here is that it was Cherrie Currie who threw the monkey wrench after killing at big stage shows for rabid fans in Japan on a 1977 whirlwind tour. Dressed in a naughty Brigitte Bardot-inspired corset teddy, Cherrie kicks out the jams like any parent's worst nightmare. Dakota Fanning lip-syncs while doing a perfect recreation of Cherrie's deep-squatting performance that you can dial up on YouTube. For the first time in Fanning's overrated career, the actress identifies with her character in an entirely believable way.
Yet, by default, the story falls back on Joan Jett's shoulders as the girl who memorably pees on a guitar belonging to a hairy-faced guitarist in a rival band. Rock was never about taking prisoners, and in the end, Kim Fowley--now 70 and still making music--and Joan Jett are the characters we want to spend more time with. Jett's influence in the making of the film is evidenced in her executive producer credit. Floria Sigismondi's next film should be a Joan Jett biopic that picks up where The Runaways leaves off. The show must go on. It's one lesson that Kim Fowley didn't teach well enough.
(Apparition) Rated R. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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