Neon Angels

The Runaways:a conventional film about an unconventional band

The Runaways ** Opens Friday areawide

The best thing about The Runaways is that it gives the '70s all-girl hard-rock band the same sort of conventional music-biopic grandeur bestowed upon Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. The problem with The Runaways is that the band isn't conventional. Guitarist Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West were 17 and 16 when they started the Runaways in 1975, a meeting brokered by 36-year-old producer Kim Fowley, who helped them recruit additional musicians, most notably 17-year-old guitarist Lita Ford and 15-year-old vocalist Cherie Currie. Two albums followed, along with a string of national tours and sold-out Japan stints, where the group was as popular as acts like ABBA and Kiss. By 1978, though, the band started to fizzle out after Currie's departure and breaking ties from their record company and Fowley. They disbanded in 1979.

Director/co-writer Floria Sigismondi's film, based on Currie's memoir Neon Angel, ostensibly covers the same time period, but narrative compression and an overall lack of subtlety get in the way of the story. The movie even tries to cheekily set its tone with its first shot: a drop of blood hitting a 1975 L.A. sidewalk. It's menstrual blood, from the crotch of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who gets her first period as she and her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough) are heading out on the town. The movie locates the Runaways' artistic struggle in the paths of Currie and Jett (Kristen Stewart) responding to Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, bringing a scary glee to being so demented).

Most disappointing is that, in its efforts to tell the tale of the all-girl rock band, it misses why people still care. While they slightly preceded West Coast punk, mid-1970s rock was already feeling like an old man's game. Yes, the Runways were five girls who just wanted to rock, but in the process — intentionally or not — they were rewriting rock's presumed gender-qua-sexual rulebook. The Runaways tries to make them just another rock legend.

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