Teenage Kicks

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi on capturing the Runaways

Teenage Kicks

To hear some tell it, the Runaways started as a joke and ended as a legend. Over the course of five years (1975-1979), five tours, and five albums, the group gave the world its first vision of an all-female rock band, a riveting spectacle of raw girl power, and "Cherry Bomb." That Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and Jackie Fox (the primary lineup) were teenage girls who lived up to their wild-child image didn't hurt. Producer, huckster, and hype machine Kim Fowley for years took full credit for masterminding the whole project, and their initial legacy seemed to be that of a jailbait novelty act.

The truth is more complicated, of course. Jett's and Ford's subsequent musical careers, Fowley's own admission that Jett and West both wanted to form all-girl bands when he introduced them, Currie's autobiographies, and the band's work have destroyed that myth, returning the Runaways to their rightful place as a hugely influential band who, at a remarkably young age, took control of their music and their image, giving rock's male bastion a much-needed kick in the head.

You won't learn all of that in The Runaways, the much-anticipated feature film based on the band's early history. First-time feature director and writer Floria Sigismondi, best known for her music-video work, established early on that she "wanted to make it a coming-of-age story and not a biopic." The result is something in between: an emotionally resonant narrative with a powerful mood and an irresistible story, aimed, as Sigismondi says, at "capturing the essence of the reality, the essence of the truth." In anticipation of the film's premiere, Sigismondi spoke with us by telephone from Los Angeles.

Austin Chronicle: Why did you want to make this film?

Floria Sigismondi: What I loved about the Runaways was that they were doing things that girls weren't supposed to do, especially at 15. ... I wanted to capture what it was like to be super-young and thrown in this rock & roll world at a time when girls are just trying to figure out their bodies and create their identities. It's a very confusing and exciting time for a woman – or a girl-woman. I looked into my experience and how that felt for me; women can identify with that.

AC: Some people might say about the film the same thing they say about the Runaways – that they were making it compelling to be a young girl who's maybe overly sexualized prematurely. Maybe that's arguable.

FS: Well, I think they really own their sexuality. Joan definitely owned her sexuality. I think that Cherie's story is a little bit of a cautionary tale. There's this very painful place in her, and she's trying to fill it with things. She's trying to fill it with drugs; she's trying to fill it with putting on this corset and looking for more attention. It kind of falls apart on her. She's too young, and it doesn't work for her.

AC: Nowadays most people seem to feel it's sort of appalling that teenage girls would be doing some of the things the band did.

FS: That's the story, though. The Seventies was a very different time – a much more experimental time. Some people didn't get out. I think that Cherie made a decision to leave the band because I think she probably would have died otherwise.

AC: Kim Fowley comes off as outrageous but sort of likable. I didn't get a sense of the more nefarious side I've read and heard about – that he was abusive, exploitive, and a rip-off artist, and not just with the Runaways.

FS: There are many sides to him, and everybody's got conflicting stories about him. Joan looked at him as a friend, and I think Cherie looked at him maybe as a father figure – and he obviously couldn't pull that off! For me it was striking that balance between what he's saying: Is it harmless or not? And how these girls get affected by it – the way Cherie would be affected by it, finding this corset to go onstage with.

AC: That was apparently quite the controversy in the band.

FS: At first they loved it, and then it started to wear her, you know? It got the band attention, but it wasn't necessarily healthy.

AC: Visually, what did you do to get the look and feel of the period?

FS: I researched a lot, looked at a lot of films, anywhere from Klute to Christiane F. Sid & Nancy. I watched a lot of films, even if the subject matter was different, like Straw Dogs. I wanted to keep it very raw, so I shot on Super-16 and kept it kind of smoky. The color palette was designed to be a little more California Valley in the beginning and tougher and harder-looking near the end, sort of void of color. Japan's looking sort of trippy and metallic, and when they come back everything looks a little bit different.

AC: In contrast, a lot of the [Runaways] songs were re-recorded, with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning on vocals. They sound a lot cleaner and more polished.

FS: They probably come across a bit more polished, to kind of put in a contemporary thing. The film has a period look to it, but there still is something different about it. The music does, too – and we're reaching for a modern audience. And I'm sure a nostalgic audience, too [laughs].

The Runaways

Headliners, Regional Premiere

Thursday, March 18, 8pm, Paramount

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Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Kim Fowley, Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Lita Ford, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, Cherry Bomb

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