The first shot in The Runaways is a splattering drop of menstrual blood, so there’s no question from the outset that director and screenwriter Floria Sigismondi will be able to provide some arresting images. She’s not quite as successful—in her movie adapting Cherie Currie’s memoir about the seminal all-teen-girl punk band—at giving the characters as much blood.
Opening in 1975 Los Angeles, Sigismondi follows would-be rocker Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart)—a strutting kid fond of men’s leather jackets—as she hooks up with music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) at a local club. Jett wants to put together an all-girl rock & roll band, and with Fowley’s help recruits Bowie fan Currie (Dakota Fanning) to be the new band’s growling, baby-doll front-girl. A jailbait phenomenon is born, only it’s always a problem trying to sell the music rather than the sex.
Sigismondi does a fine job with the scenes exploring the formation and growth of the band, notably Currie’s audition in which Jett and Fowley write the band’s signature hit “Cherry Bomb” on the spot for her. Those scenes showcase Shannon’s hilarious, furiously self-absorbed turn as the Runaways’ Svengali, who conveys his understanding of the unique marketing hook he’s got in this band. There’s a pounding vitality to anything connected to the music, particularly performance scenes in which Currie begins to fully embrace her sex-kitten-with-a-whip persona.
But much of the rest of the film, despite bypassing some obvious rise-and-fall biopic clichés, feels haphazard and unfocused. The narrative drifts from the inevitable drug experimentations to a lesbian relationship between Jett and Currie, with a side trip into the Currie family’s dramas before egos and creative tensions divide the Runaways’ members. As consistently watchable as The Runaways is, ironically it falls victim to the same problem that split the band: emphasizing style over artistic substance.