Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine

the jett set

The director of a new movie about seminal all-girl band The Runaways talks to Bianca Zander about Joan Jett, jailbait and working with K-Stew, Bowie and Dakota

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Of all the reasons to get excited about The Runaways before you’ve even seen the trailer, the main one is Joan freakin’ Jett – one of only two women to make Rolling Stone’s ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’ list, and the recipient of one of the fattest royalty cheques in history for the monster hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

The movie tells the story of Jett’s early years in all-girl rock band The Runaways, which took the world by storm, sort of, in 1976, before imploding four years later in a vortex of quaaludes and glitter.

Recruited in the California Valley by sleazy impresario Kim Fowley and packaged as ‘jailbait rock’, the band was manufactur­ed but the girls wrote their own songs and could actually play their instrument­s. On top of that, they really were a pack of scrappy 15-and 16-year-olds from broken homes. They had a huge hit with “Cherry Bomb” – number one in Australia and Japan – but the most significan­t thing about them was that they existed at all. Before The Runaways, girls were more or less forbidden to play electric guitar. Without them, there could be no PJ Harvey, no Courtney Love, no Riot Grrrrl explosion.

Fifteen-year-old Jett was the band’s rhythm guitarist, a tiny, sneering vixen in head-to-toe red leather. She’s played in the film by Kristen Stewart (Bella in the Twilight franchise) who seems determined to put the sappy ghost of Bella to rest.

So convincing is Stewart’s performanc­e of Jett’s back catalogue that when the movie’s music supervisor played her a tape of it, Jett said, “Why are you playing my songs back to me, I thought we were supposed to listen to Kristen?” The film’s writer and director, Floria Sigismondi, is an Italian-born Canadian, who sounds like the lost lovechild of one of David Bowie’s alter egos. She immediatel­y saw that Stewart was the perfect choice to play Jett.

“She has this duality within her that’s the same quality I find in Joan,” says Sigismondi, down the phone from LA. “There’s this shyness about her but also a toughness. Kristen definitely knows who she is but there’s a bit of awkwardnes­s that comes through.”

Stewart signed on to play Jett the day the first Twilight film was released. Paparazzi hung around set – “That was bothersome” – but in the face of Twihard hysteria, Sigismondi rather boringly describes Stewart as, “A really down-to-earth girl who holds it together.”

In the film, Joan Jett is the one who holds it together, while other members of the band fall victim to rock ’n’ roll excess. The most dramatic meltdown belongs to Cherie Currie, The Runaways’ 15-year-old lead singer, recruited by Fowley to sex up the band. With her blonde Bowie-Bardot looks, it was Currie who became the jailbait pin-up, belting out “Cherry Bomb” in a white corset and suspenders.

Currie is played by former child star Dakota Fanning, famous for her wide-eyed, pre-pubescent roles in more wholesome Hollywood fare like Charlotte’s Web. It was partly because of those preconcept­ions that Sigismondi cast her. Currie’s journey is from purity to depravity, and to believe in her ruin, you must first believe in her innocence.

Fanning was, apparently, dead keen to waste her wholesome image by playing the original Cherry Bomb, but not, stresses Sigismondi, too keen. “I could see a sparkle in her eye. She really wanted to do it, but what I liked was her maturity. I was able to speak with her and she really got aspects of [the film] without, number one, getting too drawn into it and losing herself.” The Runaways took the world by storm in 1976, before imploding four years later in a vortex of quaaludes and glitter

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