TORONTO – Don’t mistake the “The Runaways” for a biopic, warns raspy-voiced legend Joan Jett, who says the tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is more about the essence of those heady days in the late ’70s, when she and sex-kitten lead singer Cherie Currie carved a path for female rockers.
Jett says the film’s Canadian director, music video visionary Floria Sigismondi, added just the right dream-like touches to turn their explosive relationship with each other and the stage into a coming-of-age tale that doesn’t hold back.
“Initially, it was misrepresented as a biopic, which to me, sounds like something that focuses mostly on the band workings and would delve more into all the girls’ stories and stuff,” Jett said in a recent interview from New York.
“It’s more of a, I guess, cliched coming-of-age story. But you know, it’s a real story and that’s the thing that doesn’t make it cliche – is it’s genuine and there’s a lot of themes . . . like struggle with family, struggle with identity, finding yourself, trying to follow your dreams, having your dreams crushed or belittled, either by people or a person.”
Based on Currie’s 1989 book, “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway,” the film focuses more on the singer’s lost innocence and eventual departure from the band than it does on the more driven Jett, who went on to greater success with her follow-up band, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts.
The film traces the duo as they meet in the seedy, sweaty club scene of L.A. and embark on early, clumsy, attempts at cultivating a tough-girl persona, under the tutelage of their Svengali-like manager, Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon.
Sigismondi says she spent three years researching and preparing the script before taking it to camera, largely relying on material from Currie, Jett, Fowley and late drummer Sandy West.
“Each girl had their point of view of that whole time period,” says Sigismondi, who grew up in Hamilton.
“You know Cherie was in the band only for 13 months and they all remember it very differently, and so it was for me, trying to navigate my way through there and show the essence of the truth of both of them.”
“Twilight” star Kristen Stewart plays Jett, while grown-up child star Dakota Fanning tackles Currie, each displaying a raw sexuality fans have never seen before, says Sigismondi, an Italian-born director best known for dark music videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Bjork and The Cure.
Filming took place just after the release of “Twilight” and the explosive fandom had just begun to follow Stewart with comical intensity.
“By the time we shot, we had paparazzi around,” says Sigismondi, marvelling at the banal happenings that seemed to consume photographers’ fierce attention.
“(They were) getting shots of her leaving a building, going into a building, leaving a building, going into a building.”
Sigismondi says Stewart and Fanning dove into their respective roles, each providing their own vocals for snarling performances. The director had Fanning practise with her husband’s band, Living Things.
The film also reunited Jett with Currie in the recording studio, where they recorded tracks for the actresses to listen to and practise with. Jett says the sessions brought back old memories and revealed they still have the same musical chemistry that ignited such hits as “Cherry Bomb” and “Queens of Noise.”
“We went to the studio and picked up the songs we hadn’t sung together in over 30 years and, literally, with no rehearsal, just walking straight in, stepping up to the mike, playing the songs, (and) singing it, we remembered our harmonies, just every little bit,” says Jett, who describes Currie’s decision to quit The Runaways all those years ago as “pretty devastating.”
Jett and Currie have performed together since, but only occasionally. Currie is now a chainsaw artist.
“We’ve done a few things but I think she might get a kick about getting out there again and getting a band and touring around,” says Jett.
As for the other band members, Jett says West, who died three-and-a-half years ago of lung cancer, was always enthusiastic about the film.
“Her family was there at the premiere in L.A. and they thought it was great and they thought that Sandy would have been very happy,” says Jett, who released a greatest hits CD last week and plans to spend much of the year touring.
“I don’t know what (guitarist) Lita (Ford) thinks or if she’s seen it or any of the other Runaways. I don’t think it makes anybody look bad, that’s for sure, that’s just my own opinion. That wasn’t the point, you know, it was to try to get kind of the sense of what it was like to be there and be us.”
“The Runaways” opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and expands to other cities April 9.