"Girls don't play electric guitars," a music teacher scolds a teenage Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) early on in The Runaways. The rest of this spirited, messy movie proves just how colossally wrong that teacher was. Jett shot to superstardom in the 1980s with her band the Blackhearts on the strength of a string of radio-friendly hits marked by her defiant attitude, snarling vocals and thunderous, insanely catchy guitar hooks.
Before the Blackhearts, though, there were the Runaways, the group that taught Jett the tricky ropes of the rock-star life. Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi and based partly on the memoirs of Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie (played here by Dakota Fanning), The Runaways focuses primarily on the formation of the psyches of these young women in the tumultuous 1970s - how they learned to exploit their sexuality while simultaneously overcoming the era's chauvinistic attitudes.
Coached by the sleazy promoter Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a shady operator who puts the band together and then takes every conceivable advantage of its growing success, the Runaways finds its most receptive audience in Japan, where the group's records and concerts are huge draws. Although the band was a quartet (which also included Lita Ford), the movie focuses primarily on Jett and Currie and their radically different responses to stardom.
Stewart nails Jett's physical mannerisms and insouciant attitude, and she uses her face and gestures to subtly capture the musician's natural intelligence and wisdom: When Fowley barks "What is our product? Sex! Violence! Revolt!" Stewart shows you how Jett knows, even at her young age, not to take this huckster seriously.
But The Runaways is really the story of Currie, whom Fanning portrays as an ambitious but vulnerable girl torn between her musical dreams and family responsibilities (her twin Marie, played by Riley Keough, is constantly on her case for not helping look after their bedridden father). Currie lacked the strength and emotional armor to weather the pressures of fame as well as Jett did, and The Runaways - which opens with a close-up of Currie's menstrual blood as it hits a patch of sun-baked pavement - increasingly sets aside the music to focus on the girl's loss of spiritual innocence.
Sigismondi gives the film a raw style and beautifully faded cinematography that fit perfectly with its 1970s setting. But The Runaways ultimately feels too lethargic and conventional for the wild story it tells. The movie avoids many of the usual musical biopic cliches, but replaces them with an equally tired depiction of an innocent consumed by the wilderness she helped create, arriving at a muted, lethargic finale that is the antithesis of raucous rock 'n' roll.
The Runaways (** out of ****) open Friday, April 9 in Miami at Sunset Place, Aventura and South Beach; in Palm Beach: Delray.