The Runaways – Translating the Female Punk Spirit from Music to Film

With The Runaways, music video director Floria Sigismondi trains her eye on the early days of punkish girl rockers as Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) hook up with producer impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) to set the stage for what would become the runaway success of women in the game of sex and rock and roll. Sigismondi joins the ranks of Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), Sanaa Hamri (Something New), F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) and Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) as video directors able to transition into the ranks of feature filmmakers, but she, along with Hamri as the primary female movers and shakers on the scene, deserves special notice, especially in light of her tackling the story of Jett and Currie.

Sigismondi has helmed videos for David Bowie and Sheryl Crow, but the connection to Bowie features prominently in The Runaways. Bowie’s flair for the dramatic during the 1970s obviously inspired Currie who longed to roam the outer reaches of space and fashion, well away from the conforming norms of the proto-suburban landscape and the burgeoning disruptions within the nuclear family dynamic that would soon become the social standard. By the time Crow arrived on the scene, she was able to appropriate the female rocker that is more a part of mainstream pop sensibilities thanks to Currie and Jett setting the stage.

The Runaways, as Fowley spits and growls during the key development process, were all about taking the power of young female sexuality and using it as an instrument and a weapon to break down barriers in the music industry and Sigismondi, employing every trick of the music video trade as well as her background in photojournalism, documents those raw and exposed moments.  During a recent phone interview, Sigismondi addressed how these components came together.

“I had three years of research,” she said, “so I collected hundreds and hundreds of photographs of things that spoke to me from the time period.  I didn’t want to give it a glossy feeling. I wanted it to be gritty and raw. In terms of film, I watched stuff like Klute from (Francis Ford) Coppola and then focused on ways to get that into the lives of these characters.”

As an Italian who has lived and worked all over the globe, Sigismondi also brings European sensibilities to the material, a willingness to confront the sexual energy of these characters and the period and use it to amplify those raw, discordant notes. At times, the story feels foreign and unfamiliar because we have left this world behind. It has seemingly become ancient history for today’s youth. Further, she never glosses over the characters, takes us out of the period or resorts to hyper-stylization. She also convinces her leads to stand nakedly before her camera. By doing so, The Runaways seeks to approximate the cinéma vérité of documentary, while still maintaining its narrative structure and basis in character and performance.

In particular, Fanning and Shannon let us watch as they cut themselves open and bleed rock and roll. This is a mini-revelation for Fanning. Aside from the indie shocker Hound Dog, The Runaways allows audiences to catch a glimpse of a more adult side of her as a performer. In Fanning’s scenes opposite Stewart, the mega-Twilight It-girl darling, she digs far deeper into her character’s wounded psyche. It feels clichéd to say it, but pulling that kind of performance from an actor, especially from one known within starkly different contexts, must be easier when trust exists between an actor and a director.

Having prior experience with music within a storytelling framework obviously aided Sigismondi in making this transition because at its heart, The Runaways is a film about music and the inception of a musical movement, rather than falling into the bastardized realm of today’s movie musicals.

Intriguingly, Sigismondi serves as a Currie/Jett figure in the music video to film segment. She and Hamri are the leading female directors to have made this transition. Sigismondi is currently in the process of arranging for a collection of her music videos to reach the DVD market, and she has additional film projects, both as a writer and director, in the pipeline. She’s carrying the banner proudly, exposing raw emotional nerves in her work that will likely guarantee a long career in the long-form spotlight.

~ Grade: B

The Runaways will be shown exclusively at the Little Art Theatre

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