The other night, I watched Missy Elliott’s Behind the Music. It’s a pretty good episode. I forgot how many talented ladies Elliott worked with, including Tweet, Nelly Furtado, and Alyson Stoner. Joan Morgan champions “One Minute Man” for articulating that women can seek out sex for it’s own sake. Mary J. Blige backs Elliott’s genius regardless of her size. Elliott’s mother Patricia talks about coming forward as a domestic abuse survivor at her daughter’s behest. And Elliott speaks candidly about working through traumas related to incest and childhood molestation, living with Grave’s disease, struggling to break into the music industry as part of the girl group Fayze, and getting edited out of the video to Raven-Symoné’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” because she was fat, even though she co-wrote the song. Damn. At least Heart videos had Ann Wilson’s face, even though the camera lusted after Nancy’s guitar-slung torso.
I knew we were going to talk about protégée Aaliyah’s death, which brought back so many memories. The plane crash. The news reports. Fatima Robinson crying. The posthumous release of the video for “Rock the Boat.” Jackets with the singer’s face airbrushed on the back. DMX in the “Miss You” video. Her older brother Rashad weeping during her episode of Behind the Music. Missy and Tim’s hearts breaking. All these feelings came up again when I watched the Elliott episode, as I’m sure they do for the rapper-producer every day. They flooded back this morning when I read Leslie Pitterson’s Clutch Magazine piece, which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of her death excerpts Damon Dash’s Billboard interview about his relationship with the singer and the grief he worked through.
In a weird way, the loss of Aaliyah also came back last week when I watched an episode of Buffy that featured Ashanti as a demon. She seemed to be channeling Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned, or maybe that’s who writer Jane Espenson and the wardrobe department were trying to conjure. I knew something wicked was afoot, because there’s no way Ashanti would date a schlub like Xander. This also made me think of what a weird time the early 2000s were when Ashanti broke Billboard records but left no impression on me besides coming off as impolite to a chauffeur in an episode of Punk’d because she expressly forbid him from talking to her. Ah, Punk’d. How it played into (and often betrayed) celebrity image construction. Justin Timberlake is a stoned mama’s boy. Magic Johnson is quite level-headed when dealing with his son’s scorned lover. Katie Holmes gets pushed around. Of course, the show also presented a lot of scenarios where black celebrities had to deal with law enforcement. Call out Ashton’s racial insensitivity, Dave Chappelle!
Anyway, Ashanti wearing belly chains and wielding swords just made me miss Aaliyah. This might have worked better if it was Rihanna. I’m willing to see her an action movie, even if it’s stupid to build a film franchise on a board game. Maybe the “Hard” video was her audition for a Tank Girl reboot. Maybe Michelle Rodriguez will be in it. . . . But I digress.
I love Aaliyah’s music, as do many friends. In high school, girlfriends made up dances for her songs. Ginny created an interpretive dance for the first verse to “Are You That Somebody?” Brooke came up with a routine for “Try Again” that she performed at prom. I was introduced to Aaliyah in junior high when I saw the video for “Back & Forth” on the Box (a channel in need of more academic scholarship and a Grantland oral history). Who was this cool girl with the silky voice and why was she wearing sunglasses? It’s staggering how many amazing singles she had in her too-short career: “One In a Million,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “We Need a Resolution,” an amazing cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” and my all-time favorites “More Than a Woman” and “4-Page Letter.”
For me, Aaliyah represented the future. In this and other ways, she reminds me of Selena. Both women were veteran entertainers who were just about to break into the mainstream when their lives were cut tragically short, at 22 and 23 respectively. They continue to influence artists and develop fan bases across generations and borders. They also seemed to have a lot of self-respect. Both women were sexy, but refused to be degraded or turned into objects. They seemed in control of their sexuality. They knew girls were watching them, and they also knew to save some of themselves from the public eye. Like Janet Jackson before them and Beyoncé after, they made self-possession sexy. Hell, Aaliyah was secretly married to R. Kelly as a teenager and that didn’t stick to her (or him, really). She kept quiet about it. It undoubtedly changed her, but she wasn’t a victim and it wasn’t your business what transpired between them. It didn’t define her. It was never going to. The cover to Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number says it all. Notice which figure is blurry and out of frame and who doesn’t have to take off her shades to look directly at the camera and hold your attention. All that, and she never had to raise her voice. You were one a million, Aaliyah. You still are.
So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1′s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
I caught a screening of The Runaways with my dear friends Curran, Masashi, and Kristen at Act Your Age. How do I put this? . . . It was terrible.
It was off to a promising start with the movie’s first image: a drop of menstrual blood. It did a good job establishing the sunny malaise of 70s Southern California, but a hackneyed and incoherent script, weak characterization, and wooden acting were evident early on. Once the band went on their first tour, the movie ran off the rails and never recovered. As a casual fan of the group in question who hasn’t read lead singer Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel (the screenplay’s source material), I didn’t leave the theater with any gained insight. And as someone who teaches rock history to girls, I have no idea what they would get out off this movie. The band’s relevance as musical pioneers is assumed and thus given no context. Furthermore, the actresses are not often shown playing instruments or working as a unit. In fact, the movie mainly focuses on founder and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Currie (Dakota Fanning), giving a little time to co-founder and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but obscuring Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin Blakemore (Alia Shawkat), an amalgam of the group’s many bassists.
In short, I am at a loss as to the function of this movie. Who is this movie for? Why did it get made? Why is this story worth telling? As a feminist music geek, these questions are usually rhetorical. But as a jilted moviegoer two hours later, these were the questions I was left with.
I’ll elaborate more on my criticisms with the movie later in this post, but first I’d like to get in to the limits of the music biopic but why I still like watching them. Curran asked Kristen and me before the movie started what our expectations were. We said we thought there’d be some salvageable moments and maybe some good performances.
To be fair, that’s really all most music biopics deliver (I’m specifically talking about feature films here, but we could easily extend this to made-for-TV movies too). I’m not sure if any film genre scholars have written on music biopics (feel free to share any relevant texts in the comments section — I love a reading list). It seems like a genre worth evaluating, particularly since they’re often disappointing. As with all biopics, there’s always the matter of historical accuracy, warped by legends, differing accounts, flexible realities, and negotiated subjectivities. When these issues are compromised in music biopics, they often result in fans saying the filmmakers got it wrong.
Since music is such a personal thing to people — perhaps more personal than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although not for my mother — fandom, with or without its itinerant hero worship, identification, queerable desire, and morbid curiosity, is a critical component of music biopic reception. It’s why I saw Ray, Bird, Walk the Line, Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en rose, Lady Sings the Blue, Impromptu, Sid and Nancy, Amadeus, I’m Not There, and 24-Hour Party People. It’s why I’ll see Control, The Rose, Notorious, Cadillac Records, De-Lovely, Grace of My Heart, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Last Days, Sweet Dreams, What We Do Is Secret, Bound for Glory and a myriad of others regardless of what reviews they garnered. It’s why I’ll see Elijah Wood’s turn as Iggy Pop in The Passenger if it ever gets released. Ditto for the Jeff Buckley biopic, (preferably) with or without James Franco, should it ever get off the ground.
What music fans hope to get out of a music biopic varies. Perhaps there’s hope of being faithful to the subject and source material. As someone who doesn’t mind when biopics play with history, I’m usually more interested in what aspects of their stories get highlighted and how the surrounding era is evoked, because music biopics are also period pieces. Above all, I’m interested in casting. Who is playing the musician in question?
As a film genre, music biopics are foremost star vehicles. The same can be said of biopics in general, as they can guarantee a lock for an Oscar win in the acting categories. Unlike traditional historical biographies though, music biopics tend not be the domain of directors looking to flex authorial muscle. Perhaps this has to do with value judgments placed upon rock music as being less culturally significant than, say, the life of Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, or Jesus Christ. This doesn’t necessarily extend to concert features, as directors like Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch have them on their résumés. But the majority of music biopics are driven by the star, not the director. Regularly, Oscar nominations are given to actors who play musicians, some of whom have even won the coveted prize. Marion Cotillard won most recently for her turn as Édith Piaf in La vie en rose. It was earned, in my opinion. Her devastating performance saved a movie marred by too many tracking shots of the subject suffering in private, pacing backstage, and then taking that pain with her in performance.
Tangentially related, but opinion varies as to whether the actor should sing. My take is that if the actor can pull off the singer’s style, okay. But in general, I actually prefer hearing the original source material. There’s much to be said for an actor who can do a convincing lip sync.
But music biopics tend to be unsatisfying in execution, even if the actors do a good job. The main reason for this, I think, has to do with the genre abiding by staid storytelling conventions and taking on too much of the subject’s biography. Some music biopics have defied expectations, playing with formal convention and myth as well as pursuing alternate perspectives from folks involved with other aspects of the music industry and fans. I’d credit Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with achieving this.
I also think there’s a lot of value in focusing on a key period in a musical act’s life or career and allow this time to give the subject his or her larger sociohistoric context. I liked Stephen Frears’s The Queen in large part because it narrows its sights on the brief period of time between the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana and resultant grief of her loss and let those events shape the character of Queen Elizabeth II. While I haven’t seen all of Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, I wonder if dwelling on Kurt Cobain’s final moments might say more about his distress than a retelling of the events that led to Nirvana’s meteoric rise.
After the musical act in question starts touring and usually begins tasting some fame, music biopics become boring and predictable. As a result, music biopics take out the electricity from the people who wrote songs to the soundtrack of our memories. They turn their lives into plodding accounts of what become crappy day jobs as routinized and dehumanizing as cubicle-dwelling but with less relateable struggles Behind the Music already exhausted. You can play? I can play too. Hey, we got a record deal! Our song is on the radio! Look, groupies and available drugs! Ugh, touring is boring. All the cities look the same. Oh wait, here come the struggles with fame and the weight of expectations. The fame has driven a wedge between me and my fans. More drugs and probably some questionable vanity purchases. Oh no, the band isn’t getting along. Factions! We can’t replicate the magic anymore. Vices! Overdoses, which result in two outcomes. There is death, and then a celebration of legacy. There is also rehab, which is usually followed by half-hearted reunions or anonymity, often accompanied by middle-aged paunch. YAWN.
And when you focus on boys who deal with these pressures through self-medication and illicit sex with women who aren’t their partners, only to seek redemption in a mistress, a second wife, or Jesus, I really have no sympathy. I will laugh at them however, which is why I’ll get around to seeing Walk Hard, a movie that pokes fun at these conventions.
But Floria Sigismondi’s movie proves that an all-girl proto-punk band can be just as boring as any man in rock music. And now, let’s launch into my problems with The Runaways.
1. The script. This is the movie’s biggest problem. Given that this is director Sigismondi’s first feature, it is also her first screenwriter credit. Early into the movie, I had flashes of Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Like Sigismondi, Romanek proved his mettle as an innovative music video director before he made directorial debut. And while that helped both directors establish an aesthetic style, it didn’t help develop their writing skills. Because . . . oh boy, is Sigismondi’s script marred with clunky dialogue, incoherent tonal shifts, and unfounded character motivation. So often, the movie launches into important developments with little explanation or context. How did the girls discover rock and roll for themselves? Why were there homelives unsatisfying? Why did the girls form a band? How they function as a unit? How did they handle detractors? How did they interact with other bands? What was their relationship with label employees, road crews, journalists, fans, and the number of folks they encountered? How popular were they in the United States? How popular were they abroad? Why were they so beloved in Japan? Perhaps this has to do with a reliance on the movie’s audience to know the band’s backstory. Perhaps this has to do with legal intervention as well, which might explain how little screen time Sandy West, Lita Ford, and the bassists get.
And sometimes Sigismondi’s career as a director encroaches too much on her work in this feature. Bathtubs becoming lagoons? Jett writing a song in a milk bath? Currie calling her sister at an abandoned phone booth in some random abandoned parking lot? It looks cool, but doesn’t really convey any information.
2. The movie isn’t gay enough. Now, to be fair, I was surprised at how gay it was — just like I was happy about Currie’s menstrual blood and Jett urinating on a sexist musician’s guitar. And while I think that Stewart is basically playing Jett as Shane McKutcheon from The L-Word, I believe her baby butch swagger. But a lot is hinted at and insinuated where fan and pro-sex feminist Susie Bright knew there were explicitly gay or queer things were happening at the time. And when Sigismondi pervades Jett and Currie’s sex scene with red lights, slow motion, close-ups on open mouths, off-kilter camera angles, and soft focus, it enforces Currie’s wastedness, thus perpetuating the notion that women and girls have to be inebriated to be intimate with one another. FAIL.
3. The matter of the leads. I don’t want to play the game of pitting one actress against another, as each part has its own demands. And both actresses are at a tenuous point at their career, transitioning from child stars to leading ladies. Interestingly, they’ve also been a part of the Twilight series and seem to be using the money they’ve earned from the franchise to subsidize less commercial fare like this movie.
In truth, I wasn’t wowed by either actress. To their credit, it’s hard to make lines like “I’m thinking with my cock” and “I thought we were your fucked-up family” beat the page. Furthermore, they’re given little motivation for their characters. What possesses Jett to pick up a guitar, much less link up with Svengali Kim Fowley? Why does Currie spiral into addiction and despair? For Currie, a negligent family with a history of substance abuse might be the reason, as might intimations that she was raped while on tour. But the actresses aren’t given much to work with. Jett scowls. Currie rolls her eyes like a Valley Girl. And neither of them convey for me the dynamism their characters possessed onstage.
4. Sexism and misogyny. Again, I was amazed that these issues were acknowledged at all, though they are crucial to the telling of this band’s story. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how the movie dealt with the public and the band’s conflicting feelings about their sexuality and agency over their own objectification as jailbait hellcat rebels. But the script puts too fine a point on how icky and regressive and threatening men were to young girls trying to break into the music industry. At the same time, it provides little context as to why these attitudes were prevalent and if The Runaways changed them at all and how. And why would these girls put up with Fowley’s abuse? Do age and gender have anything to do with it? Assuredly, but the movie doesn’t develop these issues further.
To actor Michael Shannon’s credit, I think he does a credible job with Fowley. As the movie tends to reduce the character to a series of random antics, feel free to watch his interview on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Note to how little Jett talks, how often she is interrupted and cut off, and how often Fowley speaks for her and the band. I think these interjections and silence speak volumes of the sort of industry sexism Jett had to deal with.
Having said all this, am I happy and pleasantly surprised that this movie got made? Yes. Do I wish it could be better? Of course. Do I think the story of The Runaways and a myriad of other bands should be told? Absolutely. I still recommend seeing this movie. And if it gets people interested in the members’ music and their history, along with the careers of the movie’s director and stars, even better. I’ll close with a recollection of a scene from the movie: Jett visits Currie in the hospital following the lead singer’s free-fall into addiction. Jett informs Currie that she read about an all-girl band forming in Korea. “They suck,” Jett maintains, “but it’s still pretty cool.” My sentiments exactly.