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Movie review: 'The Runaways' runs rampant with cliches

Al Alexander

Hybrids are all the rage, whether they’re in the garden or the driveway. They’re particularly big in Hollywood, where entertainment conglomerates such as Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. can’t resist the opportunity to cross-pollinate their music and movie divisions.

Thus, the recent proliferation of rock biopics. Some might call this synergy; I just call it opportunism, because with the exception of arty flicks such as “Control” and “I’m Not There,” these endeavors tend to be tedious, by-the-numbers affairs lacking depth, insight and, most disappointingly, the abandon that defines rock ’n’ roll.

“The Runaways,” or, as I like to call it, “Joan Jett, the Early Years,” is no different. It deals exclusively in the clichés of unhappy childhoods, big breaks and self-destructive behavior.

It’s basically “Ray” and “Walk the Line” recast with snarling 15-year-old girls. But where Ray Charles and Johnny Cash ruled the pop charts for years, The Runaways produced but one hit in the States, the sexy, stuttering ch ch ch ch ch ch “Cherry Bomb.”

So why do they rate a movie? Well, duh! What Hollywood producer can resist a yarn about a 1970s band of feathered-haired Lolitas flaunting their charms in corsets and leather?

Sex sells, after all. Or it would if “The Runaways” didn’t so conspicuously run away from it. Everything about these nubile youngsters was about fulfilling taboo fantasies. Even their Svengali manager, the over-caffeinated Kim Fowley, frequently referred to his clients as “jailbait.” But the movie consistently plays a game of abstinence.

That includes Jett’s primal romance with Cherie Currie, the budding Bardot fronting the band. Other than a drunken, passionate kiss, the subject is conspicuously avoided. Might it be because Jett served as an on-set consultant during filming?

I’m sure that was part of it, but I think it has more to do with the actresses playing them, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. They are America’s sweethearts, and their handlers are not about to let them scissor their way to the unemployment line by offending the moral majority.

This, of course, also means no drugs, or at least nothing more than the occasional Quaalude or line of coke. Booze, apparently, is perfectly acceptable, and to Fanning’s credit, she plays a pretty mean drunk.

She also does a fine job mimicking Currie’s distinctive sneer, which the film suggests was as phony as the band’s heterosexual image.

Currie, big shock, was no riot grrrl; more like a lost fawn, desperate to flee her alcoholic father, narcissistic mother (Tatum O’Neal in a dynamite cameo), and more sexually advanced twin sister, Marie (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough).

In a word, Cherie was square – so square, she showed up for her Runaways audition prepared to sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” That naiveté, however, gave birth to “Cherry Bomb,” which Jett and Fowley legendarily wrote on the spot to supply Currie with something more respectable to perform.

That burst of creativity also happens to be the best moment in the movie, as writer-director Floria Sigismondi infectiously captures the thrill of artistry at work. The rest is merely a series of episodic clichés, as the group gains worldwide stardom before succumbing to the drugs, infighting and petty jealousies that tear most bands apart.

It’s pretty toothless, made more so by Sigismondi’s shallow examination of how these high school sophomores related to one other after being thrust almost instantly into the soul-sucking atmosphere of the music industry.

Sure, we hear Jett (Stewart in a career-best turn) occasionally voicing her discontent over the band being sold as sex kittens rather than legit musicians, but Sigismondi does nothing with it, completely avoiding the relevant argument over where to draw the line between image and art.

Like a lot of “The Runaways,” it’s just a big cheat fueled by a look-don’t-touch mentality toward its characters. So why did I enjoy it so much more than it deserves? Two words: Michael Shannon.

Proving his Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road” last year was no fluke, Shannon brilliantly commandeers the movie as the flamboyant Fowley.

Chewing scenery like Kirstie Alley chews Twinkies, Shannon leaves you breathless with his abandon. He’s so good – and funny – you’d rather the movie were about him and his unorthodox plan for turning five Valley girls fresh out of junior high into “the female version of The Beatles.”

He’s great throughout, but his best moments arrive when Fowley puts the girls through a rock boot camp in which he drills them on what to expect in the clubs by hiring neighborhood kids to throw cans, bottles and dog poop at them while they perform.

It’s just the sort of inventiveness the movie should have maintained throughout. And except for that, and a brief moment of exhilaration fed by the vicarious kick from experiencing Runaway mania in Japan (where the girls were bigger than Godzilla), it tries too hard to be nice. And since when has nice been part of rock ’n’ roll?

Reach Al Alexander ataalexander@ledger.com.

THE RUNAWAYS (R for language, drug use and sexual situations.) Cast includes Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Tatum O’Neal and Riley Keough. Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi. 2.5 stars out of 4