Movie Review: The Runaways

A biopic that's exploitative rather than being about exploitation

If you’ve watched Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming-of-age-via-the-medium-of-seventies-rock drama Almost Famous and thought, “wow, being a music journalist looks fun!” then great, yeah, that’s what I thought too. That was until an occasion which occurred a few years into my NME career where I came to be sat backstage at a venue in Newcastle waiting for The Bravery to stop trying to put bits of broken pretzels from their rider up each other’s bottoms and conduct an interview with me. But I digress.

Much like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s show-stealing turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, the best thing about The Runaways – which if you hadn’t guessed by the title is a new biopic of the 1970’s all-girl rockband of the same name – are the occasions when the increasingly mesmeric Michael Shannon comes on screen in the guise of svengali Kim Fowley and says something noncey.

Those bits are brilliant – the Revolutionary Road actor pitching the part of the legendary piggish impresario somewhere between a man reading Razzle in a train station toilet and The Emperor from Star Wars. Like Cheers did with Fraser, I propose giving Shannon-as-Fowley his own weekly spin-off, in which he’d come on screen, lurch up to a revolving cast of all-girl bands (this week: The Nolan Sisters! Next week: The Like!), giggle like a pig on crack, rub his thighs vigorously, then walk off screen again to the sound of feminine sobbing.

Shannon as Fowley aside, the fundamental problem with The Runaways is it’s a fuzzy-centered, emotionally vapid maelstrom of obviously-made-by-someone-who-used-to-direct-music-videos shit (with some extremely exciting rock and roll music bolted on top). Largely because it’s got that girl from Twilight who perpetually looks like she’s stepped on a plug in it, but principally because it’s a film that’s exploitative rather than about being exploited.

You can’t help thinking there was a great, dare I say it, important film to be made about how four girls from the Los Angeles suburbs – via the tuition/lechery of Fowley: “it’s not about women’s lib, kitties, it’s about women’s libido!” – became the very distillation of unapologetic aural teen girl sexuality. But what transpires is nowhere near as deep or involving as that.

What does play out is a film that sticks rigidly to the trusted rock biopic template of band take drugs, band take too many drugs, band takes too many drugs in Japan, everything goes to shit – with a big, sloppy, jarring lesbian kiss in the middle (and some extremely exciting rock and roll music bolted on top). And that’s fine, but this could a much be a film about The Rakes as a band as challenging, daring and revolutionary as The Runaways.

It just means you’re watching pretty girls take cocaine and crying – and if that’s your thing, you can spend a night in (insert generic Camden nightclub) doing that, not exploring a complex, morally intriguing real life counterculture phenomenon. What I, as a fan of the band and someone appreciative of their legacy was hoping for was a character study of a band who pioneered and went on to face the consequences. What I got was Gem And The Holograms: The Movie (Rated R).

Anyway, have I ever told you about the time I hung out with Little Man Tate in Lincoln…

James McMahon

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