Runaways rock the big screen

New film re­vis­its all-girl band that broke gen­der bar­ri­ers three decades ago

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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.

Ethan Miller, Getty Im­ages, file

Joan Jett per­form­ing with her band the Black­hearts in 2007. Af­ter the Ru­n­aways col­lapsed in 1979, Jett achieved greater suc­cess as a solo artist.

Je­mal Count­ess, Getty Im­ages

From left, Kris­ten Ste­wart, Joan Jett, Dakota Fan­ning and Cherie Cur­rie at­tend the Sun­dance Fes­ti­val pre­miere of The Ru­n­aways in Jan­uary.

Janet Ma­coska, Black­heart Records

The Ru­n­aways gui­tarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Cur­rie per­form dur­ing a 1977 con­cert.

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