Not a victim: The Runaways

I recently watched the movie The Runaways. Starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, this movie tells a version of the story of the 1970’s teen all-girl band, The Runaways. The movie was based in large part of the autobiography of singer Cherie Currie (played in the film by Fanning,) and had considerable input and assistance from Joan Jett (played by Stewart.)

The thing about this movie is, there’s no way it could have been more exaggerated than what really happened. I also recently watched the documentary, Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. Directed by Vicki Blue, aka Victory Tischler-Blue, a former bassist from the band, the documentary features Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford — everyone except Joan Jett — discussing in very frank terms what their life as a teenage band was like. As well as the relationship with their manager, Kim Fowley. Fowley himself also appears in the documentary.

That’s the band. From left to right, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Joan Jett. They were between, oh, sixteen and nineteen years old when they played with this lineup. In both the non-fiction and fiction accounts of the early days of the band, everyone recalls Kim Fowley telling them that he would make them famous. He did; they were, and in some circles still are. The Runways changed the face of rock-and-roll. But Fowley’s other promise — that he would look out for them on tour — was not so clearly upheld.

I also recently watched The Runaways while listening to the commentary track. The commentary is provided by Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Joan Jett. They are all, it is clear from the recording, sitting in a room watching the movie together. It’s also clear that this is the first time they’ve seen this cut of the film, and they are not certain whether this will be the theatrical and dvd release or whether more editing is still in progress. The commentary is frank, profane, and fairly intimate. All three women try to explain how they feel about the project, about the band, and about the characters. Now, I’m generally not a really huge fan of actor commentaries because so many of them focus on what was important to the actors on a given day — how late filming went, how uncomfortable the makeup was, how many revisions the script went through. But, while there is some of that on this commentary, there’s also a lot of thoughtful explanation of the meaning and intention of the scenes.

Thoughtful, but not really articulate.

I was impressed with the intelligence of all three women as they discussed the film. Yet none of the three were particularly good as explaining what they were trying to say. I found myself calling out words to them as they fumbled and struggled to express what they meant. I have to say, I wasn’t really surprised by that, though. Jett has always interviewed as someone who would rather let the music speak for her. And Fanning and Stewart are still somewhat young, and both their lives have been largely consumed by careers as child actors. I was pleased to find, though, that neither Fanning nor Stewart come across as dumb — as long as one is willing to overlook Stewart’s near-constant profanity.

That’s Kristen Stewart on the left, and Joan Jett twenty years ago on the right. Stewart pretty clearly idolizes Jett, respects the hell out of her, and was honored and terrified to make the film. It was fascinating, though, listening to the respective reactions Stewart and Jett had to the moments in the film in which the character of Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning who was sitting in the room with them, has sexual relations of various sorts with the much older guys surrounding the band. Stewart gets angrier and angrier over the course of the film, until she shouts at the guy on the screen to get the profanity away from her. She clearly feels that the relationships are wrong. That Currie was taken advantage of, or abused, or lacked the power in the dynamic. Stewart wants to protect the Currie character. Wants to save her.

Jett, on the other hand … Joan Jett was actually romantically and sexually involved with Cherie Currie at the time. The movie, the documentary, and all the autobiographies agree on that. Jett doesn’t talk about it, but she acknowledges it. So, what she is watching, in this room with these two young women, is the character of her ex-girlfriend having sex with these vastly older men. Something that Jett was absolutely aware of at the time. Did she think Currie was being molested? Raped? It doesn’t seem that way, though Jett doesn’t really talk about it much. It’s a long, long time in the past, and none of them stopped it at the time.

Of course, they were all drunk or drugged most of the time. Jett mentions that while cocaine is a much more cinematic drug, “we were all ‘ludes people.” Underage, drunk, and on drugs, their powers of consent were significantly impaired by today’s standards. Consent to the sex, consent to the travel conditions, consent to the interviews and the photo shoots and the performance schedule, consent to any of it. While I watched Edgeplay and The Runaways, I shared Kristen Stewart’s reaction to a lot of it — get the hell away from them. I wanted to stab Kim Fowley every time he went off on one of his abusive, profane, demoralizing, de-humanizing tirades at the girls. I wanted to stab all the roadies who had sex with them and gave them all the drugs they wanted. I wanted, like Stewart so clearly does, to protect them.

Yet none of The Runaways seem to think they needed protection.

Well, maybe Jackie Fox does. Lita Ford wouldn’t have traded any of it for anything else. Sandy West, as much as she felt things could have been better for them, treasured her time in the band and spent the rest of her too-short life attempting to continue a career as a musician. Cherie Currie has managed to make a life for herself with some acting, some performing, and is now a chainsaw artist. She doesn’t hold any grudges, not even against Kim Fowley — who she really doesn’t like.

At the end of the movie, the Kim Fowley character (played by Michael Shannon) says that he expects all the girls to end up pregnant in trailer parks now that they’ve fired him. Joan Jett’s only remark on that was a quiet, vicious, low-voiced, “I showed him.”

None of The Runaways think of themselves as victims. They signed up to be made famous, to be in a world-famous and game-changing rock-and-roll band. They were, and they did, and they accepted the conditions under which they achieved those things — however abusive Stewart and I think those conditions were. Were they victims? Were they collaborators? Or were they autonomous human beings who could make their own clear-eyed choices, however bad I think those choices may have been?

Do you remember being sixteen, seventeen? Do you remember being twenty? Do you think you were making fully autonomous choices as a competent human being? Did you think so at the time?

Would you do it differently now?

Would you, though? Honestly? Without the choices you made then, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Without the choices Jett made, we wouldn’t have Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, we wouldn’t have “Cherry Bomb” or “I Like Playing With Fire.” We likely wouldn’t have a vast amount of Riot-Grrl-style rock. Without the choices Stewart has made, she wouldn’t have the money and fame from Twilight that lets her make Adventureland and The Runaways. Maybe she’ll regret making the Twilight movies in thirty years, but I kind of doubt it. It will be a part of who she is, a part of what brought her to whatever future lies in store. The choices everyone made brought Stewart to getting private guitar lessons from her idol, Joan Jett, on the set of a movie they both dearly wanted to see made. I doubt either of them would unmake those choices.

4 Responses

  1. I think the great gift of being that young is that you feel like you can make clear choices but you don’t have the baggage that you have as an adult. Sometimes those choices seem terrible but turn out well. I ran out of money for college at 19 and decided “hey, why not move to NYC and live with this guy?” But I ended up marrying him and we are still together… And he ended up putting me through college! So I agree. The choices young people make are often rash and not what a full adult would do, but they are often valid and end up propelling towards an interesting future. Of course, sometimes they are just plain stupid, but as an adult I’m certainly not immune from that either!

  2. I know there’s some writer, and I’ve forgotten who it was, who advanced a theory of personal experience based on the Doppler effect — it’s theoretically the same thing if it’s behind you or in front of you, but you evaluate it differently, if that makes sense. Like, asking somebody if they’d make the same choices going forward is a lot different than asking them if they’d give up their experiences. So part of it is differing social ideas about what’s a proper level of influence to give a strange man over teenage girls — today is not the 70s in that way, and I’m GLAD that Kristen Stewart, despite having been a child performer herself, is freaked out by the way those girls were treated; it seems likely they had more apparent ‘freedom’ than she did but less autonomy , because nobody was assuming that some guy had the right to run her life just because he happened to be a producer with money —

    But some of it’s just the power of hindsight, and the whole thing where if we always knew just what we were getting into, we’d probably be less likely to do it (or if we already knew how not to fuck up, it would be easier to avoid doing so).

  3. @Corinna God, the decisions I made when I was younger. I don’t even know, man. Many were clearly life-threatening, yet I thought they were sound at the time. I honestly can’t fault Joan and Cherie and the others for making the choices they did — but I can hold, at the same time, in my head, the INTENSE desire to try to keep those things from happening to my kids. Yet, mostly, with a few exceptions, everyone lives through it. “It” being adolescence and young adulthood.

    Except . . . Except I’m now old enough to know people who have died, in their thirties, from the mistakes they made at age twenty. Odd, that.

    @Caroline I know that Doppler effect well, yes I do. :) I, too, was glad to hear Stewart and Fanning reacting to the stuff in the film. Both of them seem to have their heads on straight, more or less. As much as can be, I expect, given their lives. And it made me even MORE glad about Stewart’s much-publicized rejection of RPatz’s tabloid-reported marriage proposals.

  4. Thanks for posting this, I was interested seeing your tweets about watching it too.

    I saw Runaways a few weeks ago when it played in the festival here, still haven’t gotten around to writing it up.

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