When it comes to movies about music, there are some that really nail it, like Almost Famous, and there's those that just don't. Put The Runaways in the latter category. If the sole purpose of the movie was to help Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning break away from their Twilight images while providing some nostalgia for people alive in the 1970s, then I suppose it accomplished that. But it doesn't do anything more.
The Runaways was a band of teenage girls in the 1970s that seems to mostly be remembered for launching Joan Jett, here played by Kristen Stewart. Yet The Runaways is based on a book by Runaways singer Cherie Currie, played here by Dakota Fanning, which means this is no duel biopic - it's the Dakota Fanning show from start to end. Which is a shame, since Stewart gives the far more dynamic performance. Fanning may not make you think of her childhood roles, but with her pale skin and soft voice, she comes off here like a bland version of Gossip Girl's Jenny Humphrey. She may be growing up, but she just doesn't have the star power to carry a movie yet.
Not all of that is Fanning's fault though. The movie in no way takes the character approach, only shallowly exploring any of the central figures. Two of the band members are basically extras. The drummer seems appealing in her early scenes, but all but disappears once the band takes off. Even Stewart is really only allowed to play guitar, wear leather jackets, and make out with girls every now and then. Stewart gives a believable impression, but the script doesn't give her the opportunity to go any deeper.
Ok, so the movie's not going to give us insights into the girls in the band or try to get us to know them. At least those of us who had never heard of the Runaways can get the cliff notes history, right? Well, the movie fails as a conventional biopic as well. It's never clear at any given point how successful the band is supposed to be. In one scene, they're playing a high school kegger. In the next, they're being swarmed by fans. When did the fans get the chance to hear of them? As for the "fall" section of the typical "rise and fall" arc, it occurs solely in one scene, and it doesn't make a strong impression.
So the movie isn't about character, and it isn't about telling the history of the Runaways. What does it want to do? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That's right, this is one of those movies that thinks showing teenage girls hooking up and snorting cocaine will so thoroughly shock and titillate us that those scenes alone will make the movie. No context or significance to the story needed, it's just there for shock value. Thing is, it doesn't. Compared to what we see on MTV any given hour today, these girls seem tame in comparison. And there's been so many other, better movies about the 1970s that it's hardly a revelation that this was going on. All the sex and drugs just becomes monotonous and adds to the overall boredom.
All that said, the music does, well, rock. All of the performances have an energy completely lacking in any of the non-musical scenes, and just try to get "Cherry Bomb" out of your head afterwards (kind of embarrassing to be sitting at your desk inadvertently going "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-CHERRY bomb, but so be it). The movie ends on a high note by playing out the Freaks and Geeks theme song over the credits, further proof a Joan Jett movie would have been more worthwhile. And Michael Shannon gives a terrific performance as the band's sketchy manager/producer/writer. He hams it up and showboats to the max, but he's got so much charisma and energy that the movie comes to life whenever he's onscreen.
With musical biopics becoming so ubiquitous, there's no excuse for making a movie about Joan Jett that's this limp and dull. If you're in the mood for some rock, save yourself the money and go see Almost Famous again instead. In fact, I should probably go do that too so I remember what a great music movie looks like.