Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll … and women

The Runaways wanted to create an example for young women that rock wasn’t just a man’s world.

The Runaways tells the story of what is considered to be the first all-female instrumental rock band.
With artistic licence, the film provides a good depiction of the crippling stereotypes that women in the music industry and throughout society have to contend with and undermine before they are taken seriously at large.

What's also fascinating is the period: the late 1970s. At a time when the social movements for Black, women’s and gay liberation were on the decline, and when a blowback against liberalism was on the horizon, starting an all-female rock group would have been an interesting project.

The atmosphere of a politically lacklustre period coupled with an economic recession plays an important role in the film.

The two lead characters, Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, live in poverty, alienated from a society where their odds at success are long. Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, is on the verge of working with her sister at the fast-food chain, Pup ’n’ Fries.

Her mother has given in to the dominant sexist culture and plays the "perfect woman" for promising suitors. Her sister has taken her mother's lead and is happy to have an older, if incredibly creepy, boyfriend with a car.

Currie lip-syncs a tribute to Ziggy Stardust at her school's talent show, and we can see the struggle for sexual freedom of the time as we see her fellow students respond excitedly by either cheering or throwing food at her.

Jett is introduced in a vintage clothing shop where she lays down a bag full of loose change on the register counter and says, "I wanna look like him”, pointing to a biker flirting with the store cashier. We see later that Jett is also a fan of David Bowie and the glam rock scene, and the androgyny of a leather jacket on a woman appealed to her.

Jett is the one character that most viewers will know. An indie rocker before there was such a thing as indie rock, Jett is famous for having her album I Love Rock ’n’ Roll turned down by 23 major labels before she released it on her own label. It charted #2 on the Billboard 200.

Before that, however, she wanted to create an example for young women that rock wasn't just a man's world. She says in the film, "The Runaways was my baby”.

The importance of this example shouldn't be overlooked either. The solidarity that one gains in a band is something irreplaceable, especially at a time when life is just starting to get hard and sex is just starting to seem interesting.

For young women told to hide their menstruation, find a good man, bear and raise his (his!) children and live vicariously through them, the idea of an all-woman band fighting against all the odds stacked against them in a society so reliant upon their oppression is powerful.

But, as is true with all things, the band can't exist as an island isolated from the world at large. When Jett seeks the help of Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, to develop a band good enough to make it big, Fowley immediately sees dollar signs. He hooks Jett up with drummer Sandy West, played by Stella Maeve.

Fowley thinks rock and sex are synonymous. Once the band is formed, he coaches them: "It's not about women's liberation; it's about women's libido." He degrades Currie in particular when she first auditions, saying, "Jail fucking bait, jack fucking pot!”

These are the most uncomfortable scenes, and the film is ambiguous as to whether Fowley deserves credit for their success or blame for their break-up. But Shannon fairly presents a real type in rock history.

Since its inception, rock’n’roll and sexuality have gone hand in hand. The phrase rock’n’roll is of course a none-too-veiled euphemism for sex, and as the new art form got its feet under its pelvic thrusts, it became not just about sex but about sexual liberation.

But managers like Fowley really did exist, and one is reminded of record producer Phil Spector's double-edged historical role when presented with Fowley's character in The Runaways. Spector put women out front and gave them opportunities most managers and record executives denied them.

He was also labelled "a teenage millionaire”, was famously abusive and controlling toward his acts and demanded all the credit for the pioneering sounds coming out of the records he produced. Spector and Fowley willingly crossed the line between sexual liberation and sexual perversion when they saw profit on the other side.

The film shows how different the experience was for the band. On their first tour, they were given a minimal expense account and opened for dirt-bag bands that made vulgar remarks about them.

They gave better than they get however, and wound up forming a tight bond as well as earning respect from music critics, one famously saying, "These girls can actually play." These scenes of the first tour are the best in the film and show a kind of freedom and arrogance that any teenager would revel in.

The sexual exploration that comes with charging hormones is acted out in a way that doesn't confuse sex with courtship and makes the bond in the band even stronger.

These positive reviews and a hugely successful Japanese tour were signs to Fowley that he should keep going further, and when he convinces Currie to pose for a sexually suggestive photo shoot, we see Fowley's and Jett's visions for the Runaways come into conflict.

Eventually, Currie is alienated from the rest of the band members for following Fowley's vision too closely and quits, leaving a hole in the band that wouldn't be filled. The Runaways broke up a year-and-a-half later.

At its weaker points, the film falls into the same rock movie cliches that dominate films like Ray, Walk the Line and numerous Elvis Presley biopics.

If anyone hasn't heard the cliche “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”, they may be intrigued by these lesser scenes in The Runaways, but for those of us who aren't congressional Republicans, another scene of drugged-out rock stars missing important appointments and acting pompously is thoroughly uninteresting.

[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]

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