Runaways rock the big screen
New film revisits all-girl band that broke gender barriers three decades ago
It’s fair to say that the Runaways were not a runaway success.
Formed in 1975 and gone four years later, the group broke some ground — as five women in a rock band, and teenagers at that — but for many years didn’t have much to show for it. The band never had an album higher than No. 172 on the
Billboard charts. There were no hits, and critics hated them: Guitarist/ songwriter Joan Jett recalls one female writer dismissing the band as “useless sluts.”
“There was no respect,” Jett says. “Everyone thought it was a gimmick, not the real thing.”
Thirty-five years later, that perception has changed.
Thanks to a new film about the band which opens today, The Run
aways, starring Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie, the group is getting the attention it was denied when it was a going concern.
A new version of Currie’s autobiography, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway (1989), on which the movie is partly based, is being pub- lished, and Jett has readied a fresh
Greatest Hits album that includes a 1984 re-recording of the Runaways’ first single, Cherry Bomb (1976), and new versions of the group’s You Drive
Me Wild (1976) and School Days (1977). The film’s soundtrack includes three Runaways recordings,
This is something I did for a little over two years, and it was a big deal at the time, but now it seems to have taken on a whole other life of its own.
lead singer Cherie Currie
a Jett solo track and four Runaways songs recorded by Fanning and Stewart, with Jett and Currie helping out in the studio.
“It’s just unreal,” the 50-year-old Currie says. “I still have to pinch myself. I don’t believe it’s actually happening. This is something I did for a little over two years, and it was a big deal at the time, but now it seems to have taken on a whole other life of its own.”
“It definitely makes me smile,” says the 51-year-old Jett, who achieved greater success as a solo artist, most notably with the anthemic I Love
Rock ’n’ Roll (1982). “It reinforces my love for the band and the fact that I think it was an extremely important band, regardless of our level of success in America. It just reinforces my love of the whole time and of the band and what we did.”
A co-producer of the film, Jett is quick to point out that The Runaways is no documentary.
“It’s not fact for fact,” she says. “What they did was basically to take elements from the Runaways story and create a parallel narrative.” The real story, as told in Neon Angel and in the documentary Edge
play (2004), is certainly filled with Hollywood-style drama.
The band got started when Jett, who had grown up on Long Island before moving to Los Angeles, was introduced to the drummer Sandy West by producer Kim Fowley, whose track record included hits with the Hollywood Argyles, Napoleon XIV and others. They started playing as a trio, with future Bangles bassist Micki Steele. Then Fowley — struck by the commercial possibilities of an all-girl rock band — took control of their lineup and sound. Guitarist Lita Ford was quickly added, and Currie was hired after an audition during which Jett and Fowley wrote Cherry
Bomb on the spot for her to sing. With Jackie Fox replacing Steele, the group began to get some traction in the marketplace, but quickly became a polarizing presence due to what The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia
of Rock & Roll calls “hype, manipulation and being slightly ahead of their time.”
“We were too sexy for the femi- nists,” Jett says, “but on the other hand we weren’t allowed to do it because (the rock scene) was so maledominated. People just couldn’t deal with this girl band.”
Longtime Jett cohort Kenny Laguna, a co-producer of The Runaways, agrees that gender was central to the band’s failure to break through.
“The writers, the radio guys and the executives … they were pissed off about it,” Laguna says. “They were angry. It was like they didn’t like the concept of the girls invading a stag scene. Even the women writers … they were just angry that (the Runaways) existed.”
Fowley did get the band considerable media attention, however, mostly by trading on a kind of jailbait appeal that featured the 16-year-old Currie dressed in revealing corsets and clingy jumpsuits that, according to Bomp! magazine, made her look like “the lost daughter of Iggy Pop and Brigitte Bardot.” Largely ignored at home, the Runaways were embraced by punk rockers in Europe and in Japan, where they were popular enough to record a 1977 live album.
Within the band, however, problems festered. Drug use was rampant, and Fowley’s overbearing demeanour kept everybody on edge. Some band members resented the attention paid to Currie as the lead singer, and it didn’t help that their road manager slept his way through the band and even got Currie pregnant. It was only a matter of time before things fell apart.
“I have a lot of regrets that I left the band,” says Currie, who quit in 1977 during a promotional photo shoot. “It wasn’t until recently that Joan told me that she was very upset that I left. I thought they all wanted me to go. So you kind of just breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the situation.”
Currie set out to be a solo artist and an actress — she co-starred with Jodie Foster in Foxes (1980) — and the Runaways soldiered on, with Jett doing the singing. The group eventually parted ways with Fowley, recorded two more albums and went through a series of bass players before breaking up in April 1979. Later, the band members and their families sued Fowley for a more equitable share of the Runaways’ revenues.
The group was quickly consigned to obscurity as its members pursued their own paths. Jett was the most successful, logging a string of hits, becoming the first female artist to start her own label, Blackheart Records, and also co-starring with Michael J. Fox in Light of Day (1987) and appearing in a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show (2000). Ford has also had an intermittently successful solo career, including the duet with Ozzy Osbourne, Close My
Eyes Forever (1988). Currie’s road was rockier. She made a solo album and a record with her twin sister, Marie, and landed some additional acting roles, but she also struggled with a crippling drug addiction that she finally conquered during the 1980s. She went on to become a drug counsellor, a personal-fitness trainer and an accomplished chainsaw artist, and had a son, Jake, during her marriage to
Airplane! actor Robert Hays. She had originally written Neon
Angel: The Cherie Currie Story in sanitized form as a book for young adults, but recently she decided to revisit the book, including the more prurient details left out of the original version and directing it toward adult readers.
“I had grown up,” explains Currie, who worked with writer Tony O’Neill. “I wrote that first book when I was 27, and all of a sudden, being in my early 40s, having a teenage son, I wanted to do it again, from a different perspective. It was really, really tough. I had to put myself back in those places again. I couldn’t believe how much I’d locked away, and it all came back out in vivid detail, scary detail. … By doing this and writing down all the stories, it was a way to purge myself of everything.”
It also helped renew her appreciation for the Runaways’ music.
“I started listening to the records again and watching the videos,” Currie says, “and I was floored by how good this band was and how magical the five of us were.”
Both she and Jett were regulars on the film set, working closely with the actresses portraying them.
“Kristen was so into it, into the whole vibe of doing this,” Jett reports. “I think she felt a weight and a responsibility to interpret it correctly. She was really serious about it and was watching me and asking me all sorts of questions, from speech aspects to watching my body language, watching where I stood, watching my guitar playing. She really worked hard to get it right.”
Currie says that Fanning was her favourite actress even before she was cast in The Runaways.
“She and I spent a lot of time together,” the singer recalls. “She came to my home. We sang each line back and forth to make sure that she really got how I sing, my mannerisms. She studied all the videos, and we spent a lot of time discussing how I truly felt at the time.”
The Runaways also put Jett and Currie together in a studio for the first time since 1977.
“It was as if time had stood still, as if these last 30-some years never happened,” Currie recalls. “We were on the mark. It was incredible. We had a fantastic time.”
For both women The Runaways is more than a movie — it’s a chance for the Runaways to get the appreciation and respect they originally were denied.
Joan Jett performing with her band the Blackhearts in 2007. After the Runaways collapsed in 1979, Jett achieved greater success as a solo artist.
From left, Kristen Stewart, Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning and Cherie Currie attend the Sundance Festival premiere of The Runaways in January.
The Runaways guitarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie perform during a 1977 concert.