Posted on Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
Any straight guy who sees The Runaways will have difficulty standing up to go text outside, what with a 15-year-old Dakota Fanning seducing Japan in a bustier, snorting coke, and tonguing KStew. I mean, what does it all mean? And it’s only moderately less awkward discussing the burgeoning sexuality and punk hedonism of young girls with another guy. So, rather than compute my feelings about the rock biopic into a traditional review, I decided to ask a female’s opinion. /Film could not be more psyched to discourse on The Runaways with NYC-based author Marisa Meltzer, whose swell new book, Girl Power, is about the history and culture of female rockers.
Hunter Stephenson: Following the press screening for The Runaways, I was surprised to hear you loved the film. Having written a book on the legacies and challenges of females in punk, rock, and pop music from the ’70s onward, what real insight does the movie offer on the subject?
Marisa Meltzer: I guess I should admit that I’m a person who is very easily entertained. When you throw in platforms, teenage makeout sessions, and The Stooges on the soundtrack, I’m willing to overlook the film’s flaws. And there are certainly flaws: too much exposition, terrible character development of the other band members, narrative cliches. But I think one important thing to remember is that there really aren’t that many stories being told about women in music—and directed by a woman, no less!—so I’m excited when anyone throws me a bone. I think it’s important for people, especially young women, who might go see The Runaways to realize that girls playing rock music wasn’t always a given, and that their gender was way more of a barrier just a few decades ago than it is now.
Marisa Meltzer (cont’d): Beyond just their gender, though, The Runaways existed at a really interesting time in music, sort of bridging glitter and glam into punk. I wish there were more allusions to that era in the film than Joan Jett making her own Sex Pistols t-shirt.
This was a problem I had as well. The director, Floria Sigismondi, was too occupied with vintage fashions and siphoning attitude and danger from a primarily male-centric soundtrack; the performances of Fanning, Kristen Stewart, and Michael Shannon saved it from Hot Topic posturing. In your book, you discuss the 1981 film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains—including the line, “Every citizen should be given an electric guitar on her sixteenth birthday.” Is Stains the better all-girl rock band movie and what is its influence on—I dunno—girl rock culture?
Marisa Meltzer: It’s hard to separate the Stains as a movie from its cult status, but, yes, I think it’s a better movie. It benefits from being fictional and being able to have a much tighter plot. The Runaways suffers from the biopic problem of having to fit so much in that it just becomes episodic. Before it was widely released on DVD, The Fabulous Stains was kind of this girl-to-girl secret passed along. I know it had a huge influence on the riot grrrl [movement], both the message of girl liberation through music and the fashion.
Are you at all concerned with the sexualization of Dakota Fanning not only in the film, but in the marketing and press thus far? Like the band, does the film blur the ground between exploitation and female empowerment? Is there any aspect of the film, as opposed to its story, that reflects progress and equality of the sexes?
Marisa Meltzer: Dakota Fanning was hypnotic and, yes, incredibly sexy. So much of teen girl adolescence is about playing with your sexual identity, and she really nailed that with her portrayal of Cherie Currie. I’ve seen some of the photo shoots with [Dakota] or just paparazzi shots of her new teenage self wearing miniskirts and ripped tights, so I imagine that she’s also playing around with her sexual identity in her own life. I tend to think a lot of the handwringing that goes with teen girls and sexiness is gratuitous. My litmus test is, like, does she have agency?
She seems like she’s incredibly bright and fully aware of her career choices, so I don’t see exploitation. As far as equality goes, the film was made by a female director about an all-girl band (albeit one with a male Svengali). Both of those things were novelties when the movie takes place; now, not so much.
As a non-derelict guy, I guess it’s weird to dig seeing a teenage girl bone the Twilight babe on screen and later slither on all fours in a mainstream movie. Given, Diane Lane was only 16 in Stains. How do you feel about the movie’s portrayal of their manager Kim Fowley? And would you have liked to see a woman play Kim instead, for the hell of it? Courtney Love, perhaps?
Marisa Meltzer: From what I hear, Fowley was much more nefarious in real life. Michael Shannon‘s portrayal made him seem more of an oddball than anything else. But I liked his performance a lot; he seemed like he was enjoying himself. But I love your idea of having a woman playing him. Talk about subverting gender norms! Courtney Love could be amazing. Weirdly, Tori Amos comes to mind? Or even Meryl Streep in one of her bravura performances, though I’m not the hugest fan of hers.
There is a ’90s revival underway in pop culture and rock music, and your book largely focuses on this decade. Is 2010 the best time for a Runaways biopic? And are there girl rockers you feel warrant a biopic more so than the story of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie?
Marisa Meltzer: The timing seems totally perfect. When I heard the movie was being made, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t happened sooner. I would love to see a riot grrrl film. Someone must want to do the Bikini Kill story with young actresses playing Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail. Or maybe a really epic Courtney Love biopic, perhaps with Love playing herself. I do miss her acting from time to time, though her life is kind of one big performance.
So, we have to know: how many extra r’s would you give The Runaways in terms of grrrrrl?
Marisa Meltzer: I’d give it two out of three. More of a gurgle than a growl.