The biopic is a time-honored form of homage to a romanticized past, and a proven vehicle for writing recent history, especially in pop culture. Sometimes a good biopic can even educate the masses about a political, cultural or historical movement that may not have touched them personally, but was important nonetheless: 2008’s smash hit Milk is a good example.
But being myself a person who likes to get my late 20th century rock ‘n roll history from oral tradition, first-hand experience and the occasional autobiography, I tend to avoid any telling that attempts to clarify an era I experienced, if even on a peripheral level.
So when the hype machine started rolling on The Runaways, I surprised myself with an unshakable itch to see the story of the legendary all-girl (not women yet) rock band. Even though they were three years gone when I first heard of them, they were my intro to the very idea of grrl power, which has since shaped about every decision I’ve made in my life. How could I resist?
In fairness, the film is based on Currie’s recently re-vamped autobiography, Neon Angel: Memoir of a Runaway, and so is ostensibly meant to be her story. I wish it had been. I could have done with at least one less “get us to the next plot point” montage in favor of a more focused path for the narrative, and characters I could care about.
Instead, The Runaways relies too heavily on the freaky-real mimicry of the cast and the tired biopic formula: Cherie is a suburban outcast who finds her calling in rock ‘roll then can’t handle the pressure but redeems herself in the end.
Never mind that the last part doesn’t even vaguely resemble the truth (at least for the remainder of the 20th century); Floria Sigismondi’s script takes the lazy, easy road, ditching developed relationships and even basic timeline clarity when some good writing could have patched those plot holes right up. Sigismondi definitely has a flair for creating rock ‘roll musical moments and trippy drug overdoses on film, but she does herself – and the film – no favors by scurrying back to these two devices time and again.
The Runaways isn’t a complete waste of time. The setting is impeccable, from the music to the clothes and makeup to the low-fi homage moments and casual sexuality and drug abuse of the times. The soundtrack is brilliant. But for me, and seemingly for most of the other 30s/40s audience members (which was pretty much everyone), the film did worse than leave a bad taste behind. It left no taste at all.
Sigismondi and the cast’s strongest moments are spent on stage. They had great material to work with – The Runaways, live in Japan, 1976.