The best rock-and roll movies have long been documentaries—Gimme Shelter, Don't Look Back, Stop Making Sense, and so on. But the last half-decade has seen some exemplary fictional takes on the accelerated music-scene boom-and-bust. The bizarro-serious mock-documentary Brothers of the Head (2005) observed a punk band formed by a pair of conjoined twins; Control (2007), with Sam Riley and Samantha Morton, told the story of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in striking black and white; and Walk Hard (2007), while not precisely a rock-and-roll film, parodied the overly familiar rise-and-drug-fueled-fall trajectory of the Oscar-baiting music biopic.
The Runaways, a drama chronicling the formation and rise to fame of the all-girl band of the title, didn't sell out too many venues when it toured theaters in the spring—a disappointment given its toplining talent, Twilight co-stars, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The film, which is nearly as electrifying a revisiting of the 1970s as any of the above films, started its new life on home video last week.
Written and directed by music video veteran Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways establishes its time (1975) and place (Southern California) with a cool efficiency that put me in mind of two recent films that took on the much weightier (but roughly contemporaneous) subject of the Troubles, Hunger and Five Minutes of Heaven. The Runaways hits the ground running when eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (a predictably but magnificently weird Michael Shannon) throws together Joan Jett (Stewart), Cherie Currie (Fanning), and a couple other recalcitrant youths to see if he can bottle their anarchic spirit in short bursts of noise. Fowley, a manic vulgarian whom Jett at one point likens to Frankenstein, pushes the more provocative lyrics.
This making-the-band first third of the film is remarkably energetic, not to mention bracingly smart, with its constant questioning of the line between empowerment and exploitation (the film seems to delight in hinting that it's about to turn shocking, but it never quite does so). The following is significantly more uneven. There are a number of nicely understated moments between Fanning and Stewart, but the ramshackle band's chaotic live performances seem too slickly shot and cut. There also seems to be a lopsidedness to the screenplay. The primary focus here is on Currie and her eventual flameout, the secondary focus on band infighting, and so it sometimes feels like The Runaways is toggling between two fundamentally different films. But the film is well worth a look, especially for the scenes in which Fanning, Stewart, and Shannon are all together in the same space, at each others' throats.
If The Runaways leaves you hungry for more stroboscopic stage lighting, Sigismondi appears briefly as a talking head in the short documentary feature Flicker, about the Dreamachine, an apparatus devised by the beatnik-of-all-trades Brion Gysin. The New Museum in Manhattan is currently hosting a Gysin retrospective, including an original Dreamachine, described by the museum as "a kinetic light sculpture that utilizes the flicker effect to induce visions when experienced with closed eyes."
Marianne Faithful, Kenneth Anger, and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo are also among those to wax transcendental in Flicker, which is available to stream for free at SnagFilms. These rapturous testimonials of the so-called drugless high induced by the de facto magic lantern are sometimes a little hard to take. (I kept thinking of kids these days and their "i-dosing.") And if director Nik Sheehan's psych-doc is also a bit too much of a fawning fan letter to Gysin and his fellow travelers (most notably William S. Burroughs), its hybrid discussion of Middle Eastern folklore and early forms of cinema is kind of irresistible.
Flicker ends with Iggy Pop wheeling out a Dreamachine during a climactic moment at a concert. It's a pleasantly awkward moment—is there a single audience member who can guess the light machine's significance, let alone actually see the thing?—that prompts one to wonder just how long the device would've remained intact onstage during the singer's salad days, or how long it might've endured the hurled-beer-can gauntlet of an early Runaways show.