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Punk princesses 

'Runaways' shallow, but rockin'

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star.
  • Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star.

God bless the biopics. Even when they're bad, they're kind of good, most of them being an honest attempt to glimpse into a human being's tortured, infinitely complicated soul. Oftentimes, they pack a punch you're just not going to get from a wholly fictional film, just because it happened — or at least somebody said it happened that way. As somebody who loves biographies, the whole time I'm watching a biopic, I always think the same thing I do when I'm plowing through a peek into the life of Abe Lincoln or George Patton or Einstein: A lot of this is probably close to the truth, and if it isn't, it's at least how the subject interpreted their experience, which is a kind of truth unto itself.

Which brings us to this week's film outing, the new rock biopic, "The Runaways." While it isn't the deeply introspective psychological cavediving found in a film like "Ray," it is a heck of a cool look at how rock 'n' roll got made back in the days before the Internet, before American Idol and before video killed the radio star.

Based on the autobiography of punk rock golden girl Cherie Currie, the movie follows the fortunes of the pioneering all-girl band The Runaways as they rose from obscurity. The film kicks off when Cherie (Dakota Fanning) catches the eye of band manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who has been tough-love mentoring an up-and-coming 15-year-old guitar goddess named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, of the "Twilight" movies). Like many managers wanting to hit it big on the punk scene, Fowley was looking for attitude and style more than pipes or instrumental talent, and he finds the look he wants in Cherie — blond, lithe, prone to Bowie-esque clothes and makeup. Paired up with Jett, drummer Stella Maeve (Sandy West), guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and a bass player named Robin (Alia Shawkat ... she's only called Robin, and gets only a smidgen of screen time, because Runaways bass player Jackie Fox refused to let her name and story to be used in the film), Fowley stashes his new band full of misfits in a broke down travel trailer in the San Fernando Valley and proceeds to mock, berate, insult and mentally torture them into rock royalty. As the band heats up, so do the relationships between the bandmates. By the time they get signed to Mercury Records, bi-sexual hookups, drugs, crazed Japanese groupies and Cherie's eventually Leadsingeritis meltdown are already written on the wall.

If there's a flaw in "The Runaways," it's gotta be Dakota Fanning. It's not that she doesn't try hard, and she certainly looks the part, but I wish they of found a newbie with the chops to pull off the songs. While director Floria Sigismondi bravely decides to let Stewart and Fanning belt out the tunes heard in the film — and Stewart actually pulls it off in spades, delivering Joan Jett's growling sex machine delivery with uncanny accuracy — Fanning just isn't that good at the microphone. Worse, they've apparently tried to cover up the fact that she's sucking wind by rolling in the dreaded auto-tune machine, which digitally smooths out Fanning's voice, but leaves many of the numbers sounding a bit robo-metallic, as auto-tuned songs are want to do. Even better, Stewart's performance off stage is one of the biggest surprises I've had at the movies this year. She's really good in the somewhat limited role, capturing a lot of what it must have been like for tomboyish, sexually conflicted Joan to come of age as a rock lionness in Ford-era L.A. Though the film splits its focus evenly between Joan and Cherie, I found myself wishing the filmmakers had instead picked up Joan after her split from The Runaways, as she shed the sometimes lurid image Fowley crafted for Cherie and replaced it with full-on rock. Speaking of Fowley, Michael Shannon comes very close to stealing the film from Stewart several times as the manic, abuser-with-a-purpose manager who set out to create a bit of musical history with one of the first and most successful stabs at an all-girl punk bands. Some of the things he says in the film about rock should be painted on the side of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in six foot letters: that — when it's good — it's all about sex; that it's all about the orgasm; that an ounce of anger in rock 'n' roll is worth 500 pounds of sunlight and butterflies. His is the kind of performance that wins awards, I think.

Though "The Runaways" isn't all that deep, it does do a great job of capturing the angst and frustration that fueled the underground music scene in the 1970s. If you've got fond memories of the first time you heard Iggy Pop and felt both a little dirty and a lot excited, this might well be the flick for you.

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