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Park City in Madison: Sundance Film Festival USA brings screening of “The Runaways” to our fair city

Post by Emily Mills on 1/29/2010 11:07am

Who says we’re in fly-over country? Certainly not the Sundance Film Festival, which chose Madison as one of only eight cities in which it would expand its horizons from the usual screenings in Park City, Utah and show one of this year’s festival entries.

For us, it was the rock-and-roll biopic The Runaways, the story of one of the first all-girl rock bands to hit the scene in the 1970s. Helmed by first-time director Floria Sigismondi (her previous work had mostly involved music videos), the film is based on the book Neon Angel by former band front woman Cherie Currie and follows the meteoric rise and equally spectacular fall of arguably one of the most overlooked and greatest rock bands of the era.

The screening itself was quite the production; it sold out weeks ago, and the line to get in snaked down the hallways at Sundance Cinemas, a logjam produced by the lone, wand-wielding security officer guarding the door to the theatre. Once we’d all proved that we weren’t carrying cameras to grab an illegal copy of the film, everyone settled in, listened to a brief introduction from 77 Square’s Rob Thomas (who went to Park City to enjoy some of the festival proper), and sat back to enjoy a taste of the Sundance Film Festival.

If you’re not familiar with The Runaways, not only did they help pave the way for future female musicians, but it also acted as a sort of proving ground for several of its members. Joan Jett (rhythm guitar) went on to form Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and has been playing music and making records ever since; Lita Ford (lead guitar) had a solo career in the ‘80s, and Cherie Currie (vocals) recorded a few solo records before going on to work in film and then as drug counselor. Drummer Sandy West is credited with having been a groundbreaker for her instrument.

The movie follows the group from its very beginning through a sudden rise to fame and somewhat inevitable burn-out as jealousy, drugs, and other factors rear their heads. It’s a fun movie; the concert scenes provide some of the most energetic and pure moments, and one gets a very clear sense of the whirlwind ride these teenage girls were taken on.

As Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart fairly inhabits her role, seemingly channeling the very spirit of the rocker (who was on set to coach her throughout filming), all devil-may-care attitude and surly assuredness. Dakota Fanning, who plays the lead character of Cherie Currie, was pleasantly surprising—especially after coming to associate her mostly with her younger roles in movies like I Am Sam. It takes a minute to get over the disconcertion one feels at seeing her in corsets and high heels, but it was also refreshing to see an actress playing a character of the same age (in this case, 15 when the movie begins).

Credit must be given to both Stewart and Fanning, too, who both performed their own vocal parts to the songs and did so quite admirably. Fanning didn’t have Currie’s same growling, alto powerhouse of a voice - few people do - but she more than held her own. And Stewart proved a capable rock singer, jumping into the parts with gusto.

The other stand-out was certainly Michael Shannon, who played the flaky and slimy band manager Kim Fowley (he of his own considerable notoriety). Shannon’s facial expressions and physicality alone were worth the price of admission, and he made a mostly unsympathetic character into a wildly entertaining spectacle without things ever feeling forced.

Overall, the movie did suffer somewhat from what I can only assume were the pitfalls of being a new feature director. It felt more like a series of scenes than a complete film. Pacing was off at times, and certain moments could have been edited out entirely. The visual style, however, was beautiful - in places looking very much like it was shot on ‘70s-era film stock. And those series of scenes were themselves a rollicking good time, with moments of beautiful introspection and some superbly framed shots. While it could certainly use some smoothing out, it’s still a worthwhile movie-going experience. And, though not even close to 100 percent true to Currie’s book or the real events, The Runaways will hopefully do much to help bring this band its long overdue respect as a groundbreaking act in the history of rock-and-roll.

The final treat of the night came once the film had finished and the lights came back up. The director had originally been scheduled to appear for a Q&A, but due to scheduling conflicts wasn’t able to make it. Instead (and somewhat better, I think), we were met by Cherie Currie herself, who saluted us all for braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the screening. Currie now lives in southern California and makes her living as a chainsaw artist, and told us that she came to writing by pure accident. She’d walked into a publisher one day looking to do some illustrations for children’s books, but when they heard her story of her time in The Runaways, they asked her to pen a book about the experience.

Currie was refreshingly unpolished and honest in her answers, definitely not a part of the usual PR industry machine, and more than willing to express her dismay at losing creative control over what did and did not make it into the film. She also spoke about the personality conflicts (mostly with Ford, and some misunderstandings with the others) that led to her leaving the group, and how she and Jett didn’t speak for nearly two decades following. Happily, they’ve been mending fences for some years and are now good friends, having collaborated on the set of the film. Jett even wrote the forward to Currie’s latest book.

She expressed her deep admiration for the actors in the film, and noted wryly that “Once I got over the shock [of seeing this interpretation of her story] I’ve found that, each time I see the film now, I dig it more and more.”

“The Runaways” opens in the theatres nationwide on March 19, 2010.