||NEW YORK TIMES|
|Return to Cherie Currie||
March 14, 2010
One reason may be that the movie is partly based on “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway” (Harper Collins), a newly revamped autobiography by the group’s lead singer Cherie Currie, whose chillingly quick self-destruction is relived through Dakota Fanning. Another may be that Ms. Currie and Ms. Jett (played by Kristen Stewart) put the actors through hard-rock boot camp for several weeks before filming. And Floria Sigismondi, the writer and director, has “been around music all my life,” as she said in an interview in a hotel room in Midtown. Along with making videos for artists like David Bowie (Ms. Currie’s musical hero) and the White Stripes, she’s worked in clubs and gone on tour with her husband’s band, the Living Things. “I wanted it all to look real. I wanted bed head. I wanted freckles and pimples,” she said of the film, her first feature. The words she kept repeating on the set were “raw” and “gritty.”
The rock lifestyle has been notoriously difficult to get right on film. The mainstream fantasy — sex, drugs, hard-core partying — usually trumps the more tedious reality of musicians striving for success but often becoming trapped by it. The result has been films that end up either bloated and cartoonish (see the American Indian shaman following Jim Morrison around “The Doors”), sweetly sanitized (see the intercourse-avoiding groupies of “Almost Famous”) or as road-to-ruin predictable as “Behind the Music.” But since 2002, when the hyperactive “24 Hour Party People” captured the dance-oriented music scene in ’70s and ’80s Manchester, England, there has been a trickle of rock biopics that get the milieu and the music just right, like “Control,” the story of Joy Division, and “What We Do Is Secret,” the story of the Germs.
“The Runaways” is the rare movie to address the female rock experience. Until now the touchstone has been the fictional 1982 cult film “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains,” a look at three skunk-haired female punks who make proclamations like “Every girl should be given an electric guitar on her 16th birthday.”
“It’s very hard to make a film about popular musicians, or music as the subject in any context,” said Jack White of the White Stripes in an e-mail message. “You could trust Floria to find the right angle because she has no need to oversell the subject.”
Ms. Sigismondi, 44, earned her first big buzz as a video director in 1997 after strapping Marilyn Manson into stilts and gruesome dental gear for the “Beautiful People” clip. She looks like a rock star herself, dressed in slim-fitting black pants and a black sweater, her long, slightly-goth hair fanning over a furry caveman vest. Simultaneously cool and effervescent, she is easy to imagine directing arty musicians like Bjork, Sigur Ros and Interpol as well as pop divas like Christina Aguilera, which she did.
Born in Italy to opera singers, Ms. Sigismondi moved to Canada with her family when she was 2. She grew up doing her homework in opera houses, surrounded by people in costume, she said, and dreamed of becoming a painter. After art college she embarked on a career as a fashion and art photographer; her work has been widely exhibited and collected in two books. In the early 1990s a production company suggested she make the leap into directing music videos. “Instead of coming up with one image, I had to come up with 100 images,” she said. “But I loved it right away. Now I was able to be more conceptual.”
The biggest legend she has ever worked with is Mr. Bowie. The video for his 1997 song “Little Wonder” is a quick-cut barrage of eyeballs, eye patches and aliens. “Floria is a real force of nature, never short of ideas, and meticulous in the way she brings them into play,” Mr. Bowie said in an e-mail message. “She’s also a little bit crazy, in a dark way, which in a working situation is just fine with me.”
While shooting a video for the Living Things in Prague in 2004, she met her future husband, Lillian Berlin, the lead singer and guitarist of the alternative rock band. They married in a park in Toronto and exchanged their vows on a cross made of red rose petals. Their daughter is named Tosca, after the opera.
Based in Los Angeles, Ms. Sigismondi came to the project, made for less than $10 million, after her manager introduced her to two of the producers, Art and John Linson. (Art produced films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Fight Club”; John, his son, produced “Lords of Dogtown,” about ’70s skaters.)
“When we met Floria she was undeniable, even though she hadn’t directed a film before,” Art said in a telephone interview. “If you’ve met her and you’ve seen her work, you see that she’s got a spectacular eye, she’s got great style and she’s got the heart of a girl.” Both producers thought a female director was crucial. “We felt from the beginning that this is really a tale of two young girls” — Cherie and Joan — “getting in way over their heads in a world they knew very little about, a man’s world, and there’s a price to pay for that,” he said. “We thought: It’s got to come from the heart of another woman.”
Though “The Runaways” follows the general trajectory of the band, Ms. Sigismondi also considers the movie more of a coming-of-age story than a definitive biopic, focusing on the relationship among Cherie, Joan and Kim Fowley, the band’s insult-spewing male manager (Michael Shannon). In the film Cherie struggles with her twin sister, a sick alcoholic father, addiction and instant notoriety. Above all, Ms. Sigismondi said, she is a young girl trying to define herself in a high-pressure world of excess, with little adult guidance. “It’s a cautionary tale on Cherie’s side and an inspirational tale on Joan’s side,” she said. (After the Runaways broke up in 1979, Ms. Jett had a monster No. 1 hit with a 1982 cover of “I Love Rock ’n Roll.”)
In a telephone interview Ms. Fanning said the anarchic world the Runaways inhabited drew her to the Cherie role. “Working in the film industry, there are so many people in control, lots of authority and rules about so much, including school,” she said. “And there the Runaways were with no rules at all, out on the road with no supervision, making it up as they go along.”
The Runaways’ classic hit from their four-year career is the 1976 jailbait anthem “Cherry Bomb”; the quintet’s combative sexuality — surprising for rock at the time — seemed to both alienate and titillate audiences. Though they were talented musicians who helped write their songs and were ferocious live, they were often written off as a slutty, manufactured novelty act by the dude-dominated ’70s rock press and heckled by male musicians, even those they appeared with. (Creem magazine infamously dismissed them with three unprintable words.) “The attitude was that women couldn’t rock ’n’ roll,” said Ms. Currie, who joined when she was 15. “We were a real threat, especially being teenagers.”
In a typical scene in the movie Joan, the rhythm guitarist and a singer, and Sandy West (Stella Maeve), the drummer, are mocked by two craggy-faced longhairs during sound check at the kind of club where pipes threaten to fall from the ceiling. “One day you’ll be opening for us,” the girls say, ready to fight. “Opening your legs, maybe,” the men sneer. To get revenge, Joan sneaks into the guys’ dressing room and urinates on a guitar.
While writing the script, Ms. Sigismondi interviewed Ms. Jett, Ms. Currie and members of her family, along with Mr. Fowley.
The producers didn’t immediately imagine Ms. Fanning as Cherie, who sleeps with Joan (while wearing roller skates) and snorts cocaine in an airplane bathroom. After all, she was only about 12 at the time and was best known for playing plucky yet innocent characters in films like “Uptown Girls” and “The Cat in the Hat.” But in the years it took to get the film financed, “she literally grew up during that time,” Art Linson said. “It was pure luck that it took that long, because she’s spectacular.” (She also appeared as a young rape victim in “Hounddog.”)
After the actors were signed, rock school began. The women took lessons in their characters’ instruments so they knew how to hold and wield them correctly, and Ms. Fanning and Ms. Stewart trained to sing exactly like the women they were portraying. “The first time I heard a tape of Kristen singing ‘I Love Playing With Fire,’ I thought it was me,” Ms. Jett said with a husky laugh in an interview at a rehearsal studio in Chelsea, an eternal rocker in skinny gray jeans and Converse, winkingly barking orders at her all-male band and crew. (She’s an executive producer of the film.)
“I sent it back and said, ‘You’ve got to send me a new mix with Kristen higher up, because I just hear me.’ And someone finally said, ‘Joan, that is Kristen.’ She had nailed all of my inflections to such a degree that I couldn’t tell.”
Meanwhile Ms. Fanning got onstage with the Living Things to learn the ways of a rock goddess, from the force of her voice to Cherie’s microphone twirling strut. “I had never sung with a band before and felt the power of something like that behind me,” Ms. Fanning said.
Ms. Sigismondi was exacting about period authenticity too, trying hard to avoid what she called the kitschy ’70s “Brady Bunch” effect. “I wanted to tone it down a bit,” she said, and make it look a “little bit dirty.” Instead of shooting digitally, Ms. Sigismondi opted for Super 16 film, which has a grainy, more retro texture.
It would have been easy to go over the top with the Runaways, given their stranger-than-fiction back story. But the filmmakers were relatively restrained. Look at what was left out: in Ms. Currie’s memoir, she is raped at 15 and later impregnated by a much-older crew member; some of the girls are arrested in Britain and assailed by a flying Bowie knife at a club.
Ms. Currie hopes the film will bring a reconsideration of the Runaways’ legacy. (“When I saw Madonna in a corset for the first time, I was like, ‘Hey, I did that first,’ ” she said.) The band’s pioneering status is often underplayed in music histories, even though Ms. Jett, a platinum-selling rocker with the Blackhearts in the ’80s, went on to become a feminist symbol, embraced by the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Lita Ford, the lead guitarist, became the rare female heavy-metal shredder.
And after forays into acting in films like 1980’s “Foxes,” substance abuse counseling and other endeavors, Ms. Currie may have the most appropriate post-Runaways career of all: She is a chain-saw artist, carving sculptures out of wood. “It’s just me, a chain saw and a log,” she said. “And no one’s telling me what to do.”