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 Runaways 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” played here by Michael Shannon.
Although twenty years older than the girls, 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.
It’s a gritty, down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll movie; a ninety minute ear blistering blast of feedback. Looking for depth? Won’t find it here; for that wait for the biopic of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. What you will find is a carefully crafted coming-of-age story anchored by remarkable performances and memorable dialogue.
The film’s showiest role belongs to Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, one of the most colorful characters to ever slink off the Sunset Strip. He is the very personification of glam rock—campy, dangerous and slightly unhinged.
Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning have the lion’s share of screen time, but it is Shannon who handles most of the movie’s flamboyant dialogue. He’s over-the-top, describing their music as “the sound of hormones raging,” and rock and roll as being for “the people in the dark. Sex, violence, and revolt: that’s our product.” 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.
In one pivotal scene, Fowley, confident to the point of being arrogance, introduces himself to the fifteen year old Cherie Currie in a dingy Sunset club with a line that completely sums up his character, “I’m Kim Fowley, record producer. You’ve heard of me.”
When asked about the line Shannon didn’t think it came from arrogance, however. “It seems like something someone would say,” the actor said. “I think the thing that is easy to forget is for an older man to talk to teenagers can be very intimidating. Teenagers are not always mindful or respectful of their elders—particularly teenagers going to hang out in a rock and roll club on Sunset Boulevard.
“So, I think Kim, to do what he did, needed to have a lot of confidence and exude a lot of confidence in order to get people to do what he wanted them to do. I think part of the reason he talks that way is because he’s nervous, because anytime anybody acts like they’re in control of the situation they always run the risk of actually not being in control of the situation; being revealed as screw up. I think a lot of his hubris is to cover up that nervousness.”
“I was a little bit nervous when I wrote [the script] because [Fowley] talks in such a mouthful but Michael Shannon really owned it,” said director Floria Sigismondi, “and he owned the darkness and the humor at the same time.”