Rock ’n’ roll and the movies have always had an uneasy relationship. For every film that hits all the right notes, like Quadrophenia or A Hard Day’s Night, there’s a host of tone-deaf films like Light of Day, featuring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett as musical siblings, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a glam-rock-and-disco re-imagining of the Beatles classic.
Rock ’n’ roll biographies are equally hit-and-miss. In The Buddy Holly Story, the toothy Gary Busey earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the rock legend, but Roger Ebert sneered that Dennis Quaid played Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire “as a grinning simpleton with a crazy streak.”
This weekend, Jersey Boys — directed by Clint Eastwood, and based on the Tony Award-winning musical — tells the story of ’60s hitmakers The Four Seasons. Songs like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You made them one of the biggest-selling rock acts of all time.
Lesser known than the Four Seasons but louder, faster and dirtier were The Runaways, the subject of a rambunctious 2010 movie. Set back when you could still drink a bottle of stolen booze in the shade of the Hollywood sign, The Runaways focuses on two glue-sniffing, tough girls named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) who formed the underage all-girl band. The music of The Runaways was described as the “sound of hormones raging,” and this film captures that.
I’m Not There is a hard movie to describe. It’s a metaphoric retelling of Bob Dylan’s life, but none of the characters in it are called Bob Dylan. Most of them don’t look like Dylan, and the one who most looks like Dylan is a woman. Unlike Walk the Line or Ray, which were both standard-issue Hollywood biopics, there is nothing linear here, but then there is nothing straightforward about the man, so there should be nothing straightforward about the movie.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the title of eccentric English singer Ian Dury’s biggest hit and the 2010 biopic about his eventful life. Starring Andy Serkis, the film is as high voltage as one of Dury’s legendary live performances.
Finally, the film Control details the short life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sam Riley). After seeing the film at Cannes, Curtis’s bass player Peter Hook said he knew the movie “would be very well received because, even though it’s two hours long, only two people went to the toilet the whole time. In fact, one of them was (Joy Division founding member) Bernard (Sumner). The other one was a 70-year-old woman.”
Few tales of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll contain as much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as the tawdry tale of The Runaways. An underage all girl rock band—they billed themselves as “Genuine Jailbait”—spawned from the Sunset Strip’s late 1970s seedy underbelly, they imploded in 1979 after four tumultuous years. “The Runaways,” a new film written and directed by former video helmer Floria Sigismondi, sees two “Twilight” co-stars leave behind repressed romance for life on the road.
Set back when you could still drink a bottle of stolen booze in the shade of the Hollywood sign without being arrested for trespassing, the movie focuses on two glue sniffing, glam rock obsessed tough girls named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Disaffected SoCal teens, they see an exit from their mundane suburban lives through rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately their ticket out comes in the form of impresario Kim Fowley, a record producer and self proclaimed “King Hysteria.” He cobbles together the band, trains them to be rock stars, convinced that these “bitches are going to be bigger than the Beatles.” Before they can play Shea Stadium, however, the band breaks up—knee deep in ego, drug abuse and bad management.
Sigismondi has made the movie equivalent of an ear blistering blast of feedback. Like the band’s two-minute-forty-five-second guitar punk tunes, “The Runaways” is loud, fast and dirty. If you want depth wait for the rock ‘n’ roll bio of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Here Sigismondi leaves behind the surreal feel of her videos and visual art, instead opting for a straightforward (although probably mostly fictional) retelling of the rapid rise and equally rapid free fall of the band. Its “Behind the Music” formulaic but Sigismondi layers on so many other rock ‘n’ roll elements that the lack of experimentation in the telling of the tale isn’t a minus.
Kristen Stewart is the name above the title star, and she does bring her brooding Brando best to the role of Joan Jett, but this movie belongs to Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon, who hands in a flamboyant performance.
As Kim Fowley he has a more than a passing resemblance to Beef from “Phantom of the Paradise,” and like that character he is campy, dangerous and slightly unhinged. An egomaniac, he introduces himself as, “Kim Fowley, record producer. You’ve heard of me.” It’s a bravura performance that could have gone very wrong in the hands of a less committed actor, but Shannon pulls it off with wild aplomb.
Fanning shines, but in a much more low key way. Low key, but not low wattage. Fowley describes her outer layer as part Bardot, part Bowie but she plays Currie as damaged goods; a young girl with a crappy home life and faraway look in her eye. Fanning quietly gives Currie an unspoken inner life as she slowly falls apart, and whether she’s smashing pills with her platform heels and snorting the powder off the floor or rocking it out on stage there is a core of sadness to her that is so real you can almost reach out and touch it. It’s the most demanding role in the film and Fanning aces it.
Kim Fowley described the music of The Runaways as the “sound of hormones raging” and in her film Sigismondi transcends the formulaic aspects of the story by capturing the gritty spirit of in-your-face teenage rebellion.