Over the course of 90 minutes, the new documentary Bad Reputation chronicles Joan Jett’s roller-coaster life: The high of the Runaways, followed by a messy breakup. D.I.Y. success matched with a major label looking to crush her. Waning popularity paired with a Warped Tour reinvention. Through it all, she’s kept her game face and pushed forward, and in the film, a diverse group of talking heads, including Debbie Harry, Miley Cyrus, Michael J. Fox and Kristen Stewart, praise her contributions to rock & roll. The doc shows how she went from a sweet-looking high schooler to a black-leather–clad icon.
For Jett, it’s a lot to process. “It’s a little overwhelming and very surreal — but in a good way,” she says in her brusque, to-the-point manner of speaking, on a call from her home in Long Island. “It’s nice to see everything finally laid out, and it’s nice to be able to tell some of these stories now.”
The film was the brainchild of Carianne Brinkman, the daughter of Jett’s omnipresent manager and bandmate, Kenny Laguna. (Just how omnipresent? The flick includes a scene of Laguna taping together the seat of Jett’s leather pants.) In Jett’s opinion, the doc, which was directed by Kevin Kerslake, was a way for Brinkman to show people how she grew up, even though it’s through Jett’s lens. Brinkman had originally thought of making a sitcom about her life but then shifted the focus to Jett’s entire life, from misfit teen to Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. “It’s a great way to tell it all,” she says, with pride in her voice.
In some ways, it’s a justification for Jett, a way to reconcile with her past. One scene early in the film shows a rejection letter she received from a label, saying they didn’t hear any hits in the songs she sent. Those songs included “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “Bad Reputation” — four songs that later defined Jett’s career when she broke through. “It feels good to finally show that,” she says. “It’s one thing to talk about it in an interview with someone, but when you see the proof of an actual letter onscreen, you just go, ‘Wow.'”
Where does your resilience come from?
I think it’s innate. Maybe it was my parents telling me I could be anything I wanted to be from the time I was a little kid. I was the oldest kid. I don’t know if that made me more risk averse, but being told you can’t do something when the proof is right there in front of your face — playing clarinet in band in school for instance — pushed me.
So when you tell me a girl can’t play rock & roll, you’re not saying a girl can’t master the guitar, you’re saying girls aren’t allowed to play rock & roll because rock is a sexual type of music and being sexual is not allowed for girls. But that wasn’t something I figured out at that moment: I just didn’t like being told I couldn’t do something I could obviously do. so it was more of a societal thing that made me want to fight against it.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about representation and the lack of women in the music industry. How do you feel that could be leveled out?
I’m not really sure how you get there. I think one of the big things would be getting more women into positions of power so they can be the decision makers, because we think differently and break down problems differently.
There was a statistic this year that just under five percent of the producers who created Top 40 hits in the last year were women. Everything else was by men.
Wow. You know, those records [made by women] might be out there and they might not be allowed to be played on the stations where they might get heard. There’s a lot of ways to block you, even if you’ve been able to make the record that you want to make. There might be a lot more women making records that don’t get heard.
Right. There’s a section in your doc where you said MCA was actively trying to block your record sales, which makes no sense since it was their release.
It’s crazy if you think about it. It’s like you’re the enemy. But if you tell people that, they think you’re embellishing or making it up. It’s like 1984-ish stuff.
Considering what you’ve been through between that and the Runaways, why do you think the #MeToo movement has been slow in reaching the music industry?
That’s a really good question. Why has it been slow to hit all the other industries except for Hollywood? As far as I can tell, bad behavior is everywhere you look. We just saw something on the news about a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania where they just printed a bunch of [alleged molesters’] names, but I think the church has done it because they had to. And Hollywood’s done it a little because they had to. I’m sure it’s coming. I just don’t know when the shoe is gonna drop. I’m sure the people who control those mechanisms on when things drop are controlling it. But I’m not sure how that’s done.
The Runaways’ manager, Kim Fowley, exploited the group commercially, sexually and otherwise. How did you come to terms with that as you got older?
Well, I don’t really see things the way the other girls see things. I happened to get along with Kim very well. We were very good friends. He never made me feel uncomfortable. I never felt exploited by him. Maybe that’s another thing that wasn’t clear enough in the film.
Well, there’s the whole sequence where he got your singer, Cherie Currie, to pose in lingerie.
The thing is, these girls could’ve walked away any time if they were uncomfortable. Nobody was forced to do anything. Everybody wanted to be there. Including Cherie. And then with Cherie trying to blame that on Kim … well, we were all there. She did it and she could’ve easily said, “Hey, girls, Kim set up this photo shoot for me. Did he tell you about it?” No, no. She knew. And she knew we’d be upset. And she knew it would cause an issue.
I find a lot of people blame Kim, because he’s dead. So he can’t come and talk about anything. So it’s very easy for the girls to say this or that and I just don’t see it that way. All these people could’ve taken off at any point. Nobody was making anyone stay so if they were uncomfortable and didn’t like it. Why were you hanging out? I don’t get it.
There’s an interview with you in the movie where you said you felt that you were always looked at as an alien during your time in the Runaways. How did you get over that feeling?
I don’t know if you ever get over it. You just kind of get used to being looked at. Like, “Why are you looking at me? Is it because you know who I am?” Most of the time I don’t think that’s the case. Most of the time I figure it’s that I just don’t look the same as everybody else. Even when I’m kinda dressed the same. Especially at the beach. I’m just wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a baseball cap or something. Maybe it’s just I have a funny energy or something.
I took what you meant in the film to mean more that you were a girl with a guitar.
Yes. Certainly in those days, you didn’t see girls with dyed-black hair and stuff. And certainly as the punk-rock scene expanded, that became more of a look, post-Runaways.
There’s a scene in the film where you’re very young and you’re being interviewed by a woman who asks if you were ever gonna get married or have kids and you said no. She didn’t know how to take it. What strikes you when you watch that now?
I thought it was hysterical. The lady was so uptight. She was so invested in getting me upset or something. It was funny to me. I was actually laughing at the questions. It was like, “What do you want me to do? Have kids and not be able to take care of them? I don’t understand what your point is, lady. What are you saying?” She didn’t like it because I’m a woman, and women are meant to breed, I suppose. I really enjoy watching her face in that scene.
Obviously she had a problem with me on some level, but I didn’t have enough time with her to dig down and find out what was the problem. If she was talking to me nowadays, I would find out right away what her problem was. It’s like, get to the questions you want to ask me. Don’t beat around the bush.
The doc highlighted how you helped the Riot Grrrl movement. How do you feel about being a role model?
You just want to make sure you’re putting out good things that hopefully people want to model themselves after to a degree. I really enjoy seeing little boys and girls in the audience and talking to them. I don’t have kids myself, so it’s always a learning experience to see what they know.
On a similar note, the doc features Laura Jane Grace, Kirsten Stewart and Miley Cyrus all singing your praises. How have you handled being an LGBT icon?
I think it’s the same as being any other icon to a degree. I certainly know how much abuse people in that community have dealt with over the years. So I’m here to stand alongside everybody and say, “I get it. I understand the challenge and the fight.”
I noticed when you did your version of “Crimson and Clover” you didn’t swap the pronouns in that song. You’re singing about a girl.
Right, and at the time, you had to think about stuff like that. If I had to change the words, I wouldn’t have wanted to do the song. I didn’t know how people would react, but I said, “Let’s do it and see what happens.” I don’t even remember people bringing it up at the time. Maybe they were uncomfortable talking about it and didn’t want to broach the subject.
You did, however, swap the pronouns in “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.”
Right. Well, you’ve got to get the teenage boys in on it, too. The girls can’t be all alone.
Also, when we do the song now, I see people waiting to see if I change the age [from 17] but maybe that’s just my interpretation.
Well, you were so young when you recorded it.
Yeah, it wasn’t out of bounds. I’m still coming form the same place with the intention with which it was originally sung.
The film includes your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the footage, you said said you didn’t want to cry; you wanted to be tough. How do you handle feeling like you have to be tough all the time?
It’s not that I wanted to be tough. I just know how emotional I am and when I start to cry, I can’t say what I want to say. It’s not that I fear people seeing me cry. I cry all the time. I’m very emotional, very close to the surface. I can cry at a commercial, then I go back the other way real quick. I can be tough, but I’m not a mean person. I’m not an aggressive person. Unless I have to be.
When MCA was trying to tank your career, you came back swinging. Do you feel you have a fighting spirit?
Once we did it on our own and after we got Blackheart Records and we had I Love Rock ‘n Roll, everybody’s like, “Yeah, great. Do it again. We have respect for you, but we’re not gonna help you.” I guess I’m kind of used to it. I don’t look at it as fighting. I just look at it as work and just staying at it.
Do you feel like you’ve had to work harder, as your career’s gone on, than men your age?
I don’t know. I don’t know how hard the guys have to fight necessarily. I think it’s easier for men to coast for sure. A little bit. But I definitely feel as if I hadn’t stayed out there and tried to be out there in people’s heads, I wouldn’t be as much. You don’t want to be over-present, as well. It’s a fine line trying to be out there but not be overbearing. So I don’t really look at it as trying to fight hard or not. I’d be doing this probably regardless of my station in life just because I love what I do. And the traveling’s a bitch, but I really love playing and I still enjoy very much what I do.