Granted, Chewbacca is a memorable movie character, but would Star Wars have become such a huge smash had the bellowing Wookiee been the protagonist rather than Luke Skywalker? And who doesn't love the character of Peter Clemenza in The Godfather ("Leave the gun; take the cannoli"), but would we have rather spent the majority of the picture's running time following him instead of the Corleones?
These are extreme examples, to be sure, but they nevertheless followed the train of thought that stuck with me throughout The Runaways, a look at the formation of the influential all-girl rock band from the latter half of the 1970s.
Always entertaining, The Runaways tinkers with historical accuracy (but not to a distracting degree) to show how five teenage girls, including Jett (played by Twilight's Kristen Stewart) and Currie (former screen moppet Dakota Fanning, suddenly 16), came together in the sun-soaked California of 1975 to create a band that would remain together for only a few years yet forge a path that would lead the way for other female musicians over the ensuing decades.
The material available for a radical screen biopic is eye-popping -- here's a band that rubbed shoulders with the likes of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, for God's sake -- yet writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for helming scores of music videos (David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Sheryl Crow, etc.), keeps her focus small, preferring to present the story as a commonplace rise-and-fall odyssey.
Even this approach would have worked had the spotlight been squarely on Jett, but instead it's Currie who receives the closest thing to a career trajectory. This makes sense considering that Sigismondi based her script on a book written by Currie (Neon Angel). It's somewhat unfortunate (and probably a tad insulting) that instead of centering on the brainy woman who went on to become a trailblazer and rock icon in her own right, the picture chooses instead to follow the sexpot who fails rather than succeeds, predictably undone by the usual combo of drugs, exhaustion and incompatibility. (Jett presumably has no problem with the film -- she's listed as an executive producer.)
Stewart and Fanning are both fine in their respective roles, although it's with no small measure of irony that the film's best acting comes from the only male among the principal cast. As Kim Fowley, the oddball music maven who brings the band together, Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon delivers a suitably prickly performance that taps into the character's eccentric side while also showcasing his business acumen. A fascinating figure in real life, he's seen here as the sort of man who could sell a T-bone steak to a vegan, and he drives the point home to the girls that the band "isn't about women's lib; it's about women's libido!"
But Fowley quickly turns into a reptilian micromanager, and Shannon doesn't shy away from exposing his sordidness or infuriating unpredictability. It's a captivating turn.
The Runaways shows Sunday, Aug. 22 at 5:30 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. at Muse Arts Warehouse, Louisville Road. Tickets are $7 for Mature Audiences and are available in advance and at the door. Muse is now offering fresh, theater style popcorn for $1 a bag.