Truth be told, the '70s teen-girl rock group the Runaways were a lot better story than they were a band. Perhaps appropriately, the new biopic on the band is a nice idea too shoddily executed.
Assembled by promoter/huckster Kim Fowley, the Runaways introduced rocker Joan Jett, who would go on to bigger and much better things, and glam singer Cherie Currie, who would not. Flanked, in part, by lead guitarist and future hair-metal hitmaker Lita Ford, the short-lived, controversial band's output yielded one well-conceived if under-executed semi-classic single ("Cherry Bomb"), a few justly forgotten albums, and the sardonic and triumphal appellation "big in Japan."
None of this suggests there isn't a good movie to be made about the group. The Runaways does a nice job in the casting department: Former child-star Dakota Fanning is persuasive and all but unrecognizable as Currie, a middle-class girl who would rather emulate David Bowie than join her sister working behind the counter at the local Pup-n-Fries. Kristen Stewart is not as tough as the Jett that would later emerge, but her awkwardness and uncertainty as a rocker-in-training is endearing and presumably accurate given that Jett is an executive producer here. The rest of the bandmates (especially Stella Maeve as sunny drummer Sandy West) are engaging if underused. And as Fowley, Michael Shannon gives a typically committed performance that allows us to see how ambitious teens could be swayed by Fowley but without the cracks in his facade.
The execution, however, by music-video-schooled director Floria Sigismondi, lacks verve. There are moments here, such as Jett learning to handle rowdy crowds by batting tossed beer cans back at them with the neck of her guitar, mid-riff. But these moments are too few. The Runaways is not wrong about the band's importance as probably the first significant all-girl rock band, setting the stage from which innumerable bands (Kleenex, Bikini Kill, L7, Sleater-Kinney, etc.) would make more lasting music. But the film is a little ham-handed following this trail, blasting an MC5 cover of "It's a Man's World" while following Jett home from guitar practice, for instance.
And The Runaways seems intent on making a case for the band that just isn't there, going so far as to plaster the screen with hard-sell magazine and newspaper headlines ("More Than Horny Hype"). But the film undercuts itself when the final four songs heard or referenced, including over the closing credits, are not Runaways recordings but instead Jett solo.