Joan Jett famously proclaimed "I don't give a damn about my bad reputation!" in one of her trademark rave-ups. The original riot girl served as a producer on The Runaways, a docudrama about her first band, but the film feels surprisingly like Jett's apology to lead singer Cherie Currie. The Runaways' contrite tone may not have been Jett or writer/director Floria Sigismondi's intention, but a consequence of the (mis)casting of Twilight's Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as the two leads.
Jett and Currie were teens in the L.A. rock scene in the mid-1970s, when David Bowie-style glam was about to give way to thrashing punk. Sigismondi fares best at capturing the look, sounds, and general vibe of the era, and implying that the Runaways' wild-child aggression came in response to androgynous glam guys. Foppish music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) hits on the idea of an all-girl band as a sexed-up novelty act. He verbally abuses the young musicians while pocketing their earnings. Shannon's portrayal of the sneering Svengali evokes Robert Downey Jr.'s most coked-up insolence. The character has a point that rock stardom can be more about lust and attitude than talent.
As Currie, Fanning's waifish build conveys the vulnerability of a victim-to-be. Though she's an adequate singer on the Runaways' hit "Cherry Bomb," she can't match the original's throaty vocals or statuesque presence. Stewart nicely replicates Jett's hooded bangs and hunched posture, but doesn't come close to capturing her provocative energy. Stewart's passivity makes Jett seem more like Fowley's accomplice than Currie's ally.
The Runaways proves refreshingly casual about Jett and Currie's lesbian affair, which begins when they share pot smoke through a kiss. For Jett, sex and drugs merely provide the means to an end – proving her rock star chops – but Currie's need for attention makes her a casualty of the lifestyle. Despite the bracing attack of the Runaways' music, the film turns out to be a familiar showbiz cautionary tale, with echoes of Britney Spears' troubles with fame and sexploitation. Last year's roller derby comedy Whip It had more fun exploring female empowerment through a counterculture. Those girls really didn't give a damn.