What’s the only thing better than becoming the first acclaimed all-female rock band? Becoming the first all-female rock band to get your own biopic. At least that was the feeling during Wednesday night’s premiere of The Runaways, the true story of the five teenage girls who spent the Seventies kicking their way down the Sunset Strip and into the boys’ club. On the red carpet at New York’s Landmark Sunshine theater, the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt called the Runaways “my heroes.” Debbie Harry embraced Runaways rhythm guitarist Joan Jett. Chloe Sevigny showed up in black leather, perhaps as a tribute to Jett’s favorite kind of pants. Outside, teenage girls lined up for autographs — one was even clutching what looked like a brand-new guitar.
Asked about the young rockers amassed behind the velvet ropes, Runaways star Kristen Stewart, who plays Jett in the film, was thrilled. “If I go out there and everyone’s wearing shag haircuts like Joan,” she said, “I’ll know we did something right.” Sure enough, if Stewart earned one rhinestone for every shag haircut outside, every inch of the metallic strapless dress she wore that night would be bedazzled by now.
For the second time in the past 30 years, the Runaways are becoming icons, and the film makes it easy to understand why. Director Floria Sigismondi, who’s made music videos for the White Stripes and Marilyn Manson, offers a fresh, unapologetically girlie twist on hoary old rock biopic clichés. So instead of groupie orgies, there’s a very sweet love scene between Jett and singer Cherie Currie, who never takes off her roller skates. And instead of fights over record contracts, there’s heated debates about the fashion-forwardness of pink corsets.
But there’s never any doubt that these feathered-haired vamps aren’t just as serious about playing music as corseted beauties like, say, David Bowie. It’s just that this is a coming-of-age story, not only for the teenage girls in the band, but for rock & roll itself, which was changing right along with them. “The Seventies was a perfect time to be a teenager, because it was such an era of experimentation with sex and drugs and rock music,” says Sigismondi. “And the Runaways were a truly experimental band: they did all the things young girls weren’t supposed to do.” That includes getting high in airplane bathrooms and urinating on some rude rocker dude’s guitar (as Jett does in one scene).
True to that spirit, Sigismondi is also doing a few things she’s not supposed to do, like casting two former child stars — Stewart and Dakota Fanning, both flown in from a little vampire movie franchise you might have heard of — in a feature that deals frankly with subjects like pill-popping and softcore porn and masturbation. As one blog recently joked, it’s Twilight Girls Gone Wild.
At first, Fanning was anxious about playing Cherie Currie, especially since she knew her real singing voice would be used in the film. “Even the thought of singing karaoke has always terrified me,”admits the 16-year-old actress. “And I had never felt the power of a band behind me.” So Sigismondi arranged for Fanning to practice with the Living Things, an L.A. rock band that features the director’s husband, Lillian Berlin. Currie also taught Fanning her favorite trick: wrapping the microphone chord around her leg, and then unspooling it until it flies into the air for her to catch. Soon, Fanning was so comfortable onstage that she invited her own mother to watch her writhing around to the jailbait anthem “Cherry Bomb,” which includes heavy-breather lyrics like, “I’ll give you something to live for / Have you, grab you ’til you’re sore!”
Currie was impressed. “I got knots on my head the size of lemons when I didn’t do that microphone thing right,” she admits. As a token of her admiration, she lent Fanning a prized Runaways relic: a Davie Bowie belt she’d made herself at age 15. Fanning wears it proudly during the film.
Stewart also heavily researched her role, though she did most of her homework on the bathroom floor of Joan Jett’s hotel room in Seattle. She’d flown out to see Jett play on New Year’s Eve of 2008, and the two women spent the whole night sprawled on the linoleum, talking excitedly about the Runaways. Jett burned albums and live bootlegs for Stewart, and even allowed her to borrow tape-recorded letters to an aunt that Jett had made at age 13. “Getting her voice down at that age was really important to me,” says Stewart, 19. “She’s just saying things like ‘I’m eating a microwave pizza now!’ It’s funny that this total rock star was once just like any other lazy teenager.”
Now, that former lazy teenager couldn’t be more proud. Jett admits that seeing the 19-year-old actress on screen was “like looking into a mirror.” And she’s proud that her band is finally getting its due. Though their debut album never sold more than 25,000 copies, Jett has since gone platinum with her group the Blackhearts, and Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford may be the best-known heavy-metal goddess of all time. Plus, Jett says, the Runaways’ message — that girls can do whatever the hell they want to — is still important for people to hear. “Women are still second-class citizens,” she says. “I was flying back from a show in Japan, and the flight attendants walked around first class asking all the men what they wanted to drink, and no one asked me. That’s why it’s important for me to get this movie out there, not just to inspire girls to pick up an instrument, but to tell them, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Make your own victories. Make your own mistakes.’ “
That also goes for Currie, who once refused an interview with a certain music magazine. “I turned down the cover of Rolling Stone, because I knew the girls would kill me,” she says. “Kids, how do they deal with something like that? We were so young.”