"The Runaways” can be stunningly evocative of the ’70s all-girl rock band’s slight rise and steep fall, capturing the altered moods and glorious burnout music of the era. But Floria Sigismondi’s biopic often bears the obvious scars of litigation or historical skimming — anyone who comes to "The Runaways” with knowledge about Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford’s groundbreaking band will feel a little cherry-bombed by the experience.
The setup could not be more perfect, with 15-year-old Joan Larkin (Kristen Stewart) buying a men’s leather jacket and blowing up at a music instructor who refuses to let her plug in her guitar. She’s tough, wants to be Suzi Quatro and likes girls — in fact, she doesn’t want any boys in her band. Calling herself Joan Jett, she approaches music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon of "Revolutionary Road”) outside Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco about her all-girl band idea.
A self-declared sleaze, Fowley goes looking for teenage girls and hits pay dirt with Currie (Dakota Fanning), a David Bowie fanatic from a broken home in the San Fernando Valley. The band solidifies around Jett, Currie, Sandy West (Stella Maeve), Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and the composite bass player, Robin Robins (Alia Shawkat of "Arrested Development”), during abusive practice sessions in a beat-up trailer. The band hits the clubs, wins a recording contract and becomes a media curiosity, eventually finding real success in Japan before drugs and infighting cause an inevitable "Behind the Music” implosion.
Fanning and Stewart are spot-on as Currie and Jett — Stewart looks enough like the real thing to cause future confusion for photo archivists — and Shannon could not be more like the real Fowley if he crawled inside the old lizard’s skin. Sigismondi films "The Runaways” in skuzzy, grainy tones that make it resemble a mid-’70s drive-in exploitation movie and lend the biopic superficial realism, but when it comes down to actual details, "The Runaways” sometimes treats real biographical information with all the loving concern that Fowley showed his teen-girl rock band as they were spiraling.