With movie stars and rock stars, it’s always the same. We want to be them, or to be with them. With movie stars impersonating rock stars, it’s a little different. We want to judge them. And “The Runaways” kindly obliges this predilection, letting us test Kristen Stewart’s “Twilight” phenomenology and Dakota Fanning’s decade and a half of child-actor ubiquity against the pop mythologies of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. For whatever that’s worth.
Music videoist Floria Sigismondi makes her feature directorial debut, adapting Currie’s memoir “Neon Angel” into a moving-picture portrait of the glam-goth proto-punkers on their way to fame and inevitable flameout. Historically that involved figuring out the marketability of rambunctious sexual curiosity and then suffering its consequences, sometimes musically. Here it’s reduced to Stewart in black shag and self-stenciled Sex Pistols T-shirt, Fanning in corset and come-hither-if-you-dare stare, and the cosseting crimson haze that surrounds them when, unavoidably, they start making out. There are also some Runaways songs, of course, padded up with making-of moments, plus habitual scene stealer Michael Shannon looming in nearly every background as Kim Fowley, the all-teen-girl-band’s sadistic sleazebag producer, who united and actualized and exploited them.
So tossed-off a study of stardom (and its clingy relative, celebrity hype) ought to be conducive to all forms of wankery. But “The Runaways” somehow gets so tarted up that it forgets to turn on the heat. Weirdly, we can’t blame the oh-so-packaged, front-women-focused presentation (in Sigismondi’s view, other Runaways barely rate); yes, the movie’s all about surface-level titillation, but so was the band itself, which arose as much from a male impresario’s unwholesome contrivance — “Jail fucking bait! Jack fucking pot!” — as from the will and talent of a group of girls. At least Fowley, however calculating and wantonly abusive, quite clearly also was inspired. Sigismondi, not so much.
It’s like she’s working from a rock-band biopic kit, suffering through mandatory stuff — like the cross-cut expositional scenes of Joan’s dully sexist guitar teacher and Cherie’s drunkenly absent dad, or the separate vectors of Joan’s self-possession and Cherie’s descent to druggy oblivion — so we don’t have to. Except that we do. Of course, without that boilerplate, Sigismondi might just have veered off into abstraction for the vibe’s sake. If she avoids schooling us with retrospective feminist pronouncements, it’s apparently less from courtesy than from incapacity. Don’t ask her what it all means, or what’s the cultural context, just sit through the set pieces and try to keep grooving.
And so what might have been a master stroke — opening in a sunny, seedy 1975 L.A. with a fresh splotch of menstrual blood on hot pavement — comes quickly to seem like the first of many false starts. And all the other ah-ha or oh-yes moments seem to derive solely from audience charity. But maybe that’s the natural consequence of buying in to whatever kind of culture sex sells: Sooner or later, we star-fuckers have to do all the work.