By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The Runaways isn't just about rock 'n' roll; it is rock 'n' roll, as loud, sexy, sometimes sloppy and ultimately exhilarating as the music can be. It also feels a bit taboo, with guitar goddesses under legal age barreling through backstage naughtiness previously reserved only for grown men.
That was the gender-moshing hook for the Runaways, a lurid concept band turning the rock 'n' roll boys club on its pierced ear in the mid 1970s. "Jail (dirty adjective) bait! Jackpot!" says the wigged-out impresario foisting them on the world, a generation before Amber Alerts and To Catch a Predator would make that highly questionable judgment.
Writer-director Floria Sigismondi leaps into this cultural minefield with abandon, but not recklessly. She's dealing with rock history here, with details as important as the music. The Runaways is crammed with telling '70s sights and sounds; spray painting a makeshift shirt hailing the Sex Pistols (or perhaps just the word "sex") says as much about the era's hormonal compass as the stuttering double entendre of Cherry Bomb.
Sullen punk Joan Jett (slouching dead ringer Kristen Stewart) and peroxide princess Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning, growing into her talent) are a couple of latchkey kids destined to become rock icons. Both are introduced to womanhood by very different passages: a first menstruation dripped on a Hollywood boulevard by virginal Cherie, and sexually curious Joan demanding the right to buy and wear a man's leather motorcycle jacket.
Neither is a real musician yet, but each is a rebel. Cherie flips off hecklers at a school talent show while lip synching and dressing like her idol, David Bowie. Joan tweaks her beginning guitar teacher's square curriculum with a bawdy version of On Top of Old Smoky. Good music biopics offer such fascinating obscurities rather than trampling familiar turf, like Ray and Walk the Line.
The girls' nowhere lives intersect when rock promoter Kim Fowley (an astonishing Michael Shannon) rounds out his jailbait idea, stashing the band in a camper/cocoon from which a heavy-metal butterfly will emerge. It's also the setting for the film's best extended sequence, when Cherie stupidly brings a Peggy Lee song to audition for the band.
Fowley is livid, which is a condition Shannon takes in scarily amusing directions throughout The Runaways. He orders Cherie out of the trailer so he and the band can make up a song for her to try, which turns out to be the carnal teen anthem Cherry Bomb. Cherie nearly quits after hearing what she's expected to sing. Fowley bullies her into doing it again and again until it sizzles — a peek inside a ragged creative process that movies haven't shown before because there's only one Runaways.
I wish Sigismondi displayed as much uniqueness in the third act, which gets hijacked by vices and band friction that are rock's occupational hazards, and movie cliches. But for the first hour, The Runaways is a sonic, sensual tribute to a band that broke rules without even caring or realizing they existed. This movie is only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.