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Runaways Renewed By Movie, Book
Don’t worry if you missed The Runaways.
They exploded on the rock scene and dissipated faster than, well, a cherry bomb.
Formed in 1975 and gone four years later, the group broke some ground — as five women in a rock band, and teenagers, no less — but for many years didn’t have much to show for it. None of its albums charted higher than No. 172 on the Billboard charts. There were no hits. Critics hated them; guitarist and chief songwriter Joan Jett recalls one writer — a woman — referring to them as “useless sluts.”
“There was no respect,” Jett acknowledges. “Everyone thought it was a gimmick, not the real thing.”
Thirty-five years later, that perception has changed in a very real way.
Thanks to a new film about the band, “The Runaways” — starring Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” as Jett and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Dakota Fanning as singer Cherie Currie — the group is getting some of the due it was denied when it was a going concern.
A new version of Currie’s 1989 autobiography — “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway,” on which the movie is partly based — has been published, and Jett has readied a fresh “Greatest Hits” album that includes a 1984 re-recording of The Runaways’ first single, “Cherry Bomb,” and brand new versions of the group’s “You Drive Me Wild” and “School Days.”
The film’s soundtrack, meanwhile, includes three Runaways recordings, a Jett solo track and four Runaways songs recorded by Fanning and Stewart, with Jett and Currie helping out in the studio.
“It’s just unreal,” says Currie, 50. “I still have to pinch myself. I don’t believe it’s actually happening. This is something I did for a little over two years, and it was a big deal at the time, but now it seems to have taken on a whole other life of its own.”
Jett, meanwhile, prefers the term surreal when talking about the Runaways renaissance.
“It definitely makes me smile,” says Jett, 51, who was born Joan Larkin and went on to great success as a solo artist, most notably with the 1982 anthem “I Love Rock N’ Roll.”
“It reinforces my love for the band and the fact I think it was an extremely important band, regardless of our level of success in America. It just reinforces my love of the whole time and of the band and what we did.”
But Jett, a co-producer of the film, is also quick to point out that “The Runaways” is “absolutely not a bio-pic. It’s not fact-for-fact. What they did was basically take elements from the Runaways story and created a parallel narrative.”
The real story — as told by Currie in “Neon Angel” and in the 2004 documentary “Edgeplay” — is certainly filled with the kind of drama Hollywood loves, as well as the kind of explicit grit that sets off alarm bells for some filmmakers.
The Runaways started when East Coast transplant Jett and the late drummer Sandy West in Los Angeles were introduced to each other by Kim Fowley, a producer whose track record included hits with the Hollywood Argyles, Napoleon XIV and others. They started playing out as a trio with future Bangles bassist Micki Steele before Fowley — enamored by the commercial possibilities of an all-girl rock band — took control and helped shape the lineup and the group’s sound. Guitarist Lita Ford was quickly added, and Currie was hired after an audition during which Jett and Fowley wrote “Cherry Bomb” on the spot for her to sing.
The Runaways — with Jackie Fox replacing Steele — turned into something of a boot camp run with a drill sergeant temperament by Fowley, who according to Currie regularly addressed them as “dogs” and worse. The group did cause a stir in the marketplace, however, though it quickly became a polarizing presence that “suffered from hype, manipulation and being slightly ahead of their time,” according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.
“We were too sexy for the feminists,” Jett remembers, “but on the other hand we weren’t allowed to do it because (the rock scene) was so male dominated. People just couldn’t deal with this girl band.”
Longtime Jett cohort Kenny Laguna, a co-producer of “The Runaways” film, adds that “the writers, the radio guys and the executives ... they were pissed off about it. They were angry. It was like they didn’t like the concept of the girls invading a stag scene. Even the women writers ... they were just angry that (The Runaways) existed.”
Fowley did generate media attention for the group, however, mostly by trading on a kind of jailbait appeal that included a 16-year-old Currie dressed in revealing corsets and clingy jumpsuits — “the lost daughter of Iggy Pop and Brigette Bardot,” according to Bomp! magazine. Though their homeland remained skeptical, The Runaways were embraced by punk rockers in Europe and by Japan, where they were popular enough to record a 1977 live album.
But any success was mitigated by dark dealing inside the group. Drug use was rampant. Fowley’s demeanor kept everybody on edge. Some of the band members resented the inordinate amount of attention Currie received as the frontwoman, and a road manager who slept his way through the band — impregnating Currie as well — didn’t help matters. The Runaways were simply overworked, underpaid and emotionally abused.
“I have a lot of regrets that I left the band,” says Currie, who quit in 1977 during a promotional photo shoot as the result of long-simmering tensions. “It wasn’t until recently that Joan told me she was very upset that I left. I thought they all wanted me to go — so you kind of just breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the situation.”
With Currie setting off as a solo artist and an actress — co-starring with Jodie Foster in “Foxes” in 1980 — The Runaways soldiered on with Jett singing. The group eventually parted ways with Fowley, recorded two more albums and went through a series of bass players before breaking up in April 1979. The group members and their families eventually sued Fowley for a more equitable share of The Runaways revenues.
The group was quickly consigned to rock ’n’ roll’s past as its members pursued their own paths. Jett was the most successful; besides a series of hits, she became the first female artist to start her own label, Blackheart Records, and also co-starred with Michael J. Fox in the 1987 film “Light of Day” and appeared in a 2000 Broadway revival of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Ford has also had an intermittently successful career as a solo artist, including the 1988 duet with Ozzy Osbourne, “Close My Eyes Forever.”
Currie’s rocky path included a solo album, a collaborative record with her twin sister Marie and some additional acting success — but also a crippling drug addiction she finally conquered during the mid-’80s. She went on to become a drug counselor, a personal fitness trainer and an accomplished chainsaw artist and had a son, Jake, during her marriage to actor Robert Hays.
It was the 1989 publication of “Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story,” then tailored as a more sanitized young adult book, that jump-started the current spate of Runaways activity. The first step was her decision to re-write the book and put in the more prurient details left out of the original version.
“I had grown up,” explains Currie, who worked with writer Tony O’Neill. “I wrote that first book when I was 27, and all of a sudden being in my early 40s, having a teenage son, I wanted to do it again, from a different perspective. It was really, really tough; I had to put myself back in those places again. I couldn’t believe how much I’d locked away, and it all came back out in vivid detail, scary detail.
“I realized by doing this and writing down all the stories, it was a way to purge myself of everything.”
It also, she says, helped her renew her appreciation for The Runaways’ music.
“I started listening to the records again and watching the videos,” Currie says, “and I was floored by how good this band was and how magical the five of us were and what we had accomplished. I felt like we were not just a flash in the pan, and that we really meant something.”
That feeling wasn’t immediately shared by the publishing world, however, but Laguna — who Currie had met through Jett — stepped in and parlayed her story into a movie deal. “I had no idea by any stretch of the imagination that this was going to happen,” Currie says, and even Laguna adds that he and Jett were surprised by the course the film took.
“We knew these guys are big league,” he says, “but they exceeded our expectations with the casting. When they got Kristen Stewart, there was a lot of excitement. We could feel that one. Then they told us they were going after Dakota Fanning, and you could tell that the this was turning into a pretty big deal.”
Jett was a constant on the set during the filming, and Currie was a frequent presence, both working closely with the actresses that were portraying them. “Kristen was so into it, into the whole vibe of doing this,” Jett reports. “I think she felt a weight and a responsibility to interpret it correctly. She was really serious about it and was watching me and asking me all sorts of questions, from speech aspects to watching my body language, watching where I stood, watching my guitar playing. She really worked hard to get it right.”
Currie, meanwhile, says Fanning was her “favorite actress” even before she was hired for “The Runaways,” and was just as dedicated as Stewart.
“She and I spent a lot of time together,” Currie recalls. “She came to my home. We sang each line back and forth to make sure she really got how I sing, my mannerisms. She studied all the videos, and we spent a lot of time discussing how I truly felt at the time.
“She’s just brilliant. She got it, just, boom, done. She’s just extraordinary.”
“The Runaways” — which had a limited opening on March 19, receiving mixed reviews, and opens wide on Friday, April 9 — also gave Jett and Currie the first chance to be together in a studio since 1977, which the latter says was a moving experience. “It was as if time had stood still, as if these last 30-some years never happened,” Currie notes. “We were on the mark. It was incredible. We had a fantastic time.”
The leveling note, she adds, was the missing West, who died of cancer in October 2006.
“The only sad part is that Sandy’s not here,” Currie says. “She always believed it would happen. She’s here in spirit.”
“The Runaways” has Currie talking about doing music again, including some solo shows during the summer and “definitely” another collaboration with Jett. For now, however, they’re anxious to help shepherd a new era for The Runaways and hope that the film, book and album releases will bring the appreciation the group was previously denied.
“It’s just a relief, and it’s a blessing,” Currie explains, “because we just went through so much together, and for it to be recognized now, 35 years later, is just tremendous.”
And, Laguna adds: “Even if it’s not a huge movie, it’s going to have a colossal effect on young girls playing rock ‘n’ roll, for sure. It will be an inspiration.”
"The Runaways" opens at area theaters on Friday, April 9. Singer Cherie Currie will attend a screening of the film and host a Q&A session afterwards at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 7, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Admission is free but passes are required. Call (248) 544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com. Currie will also sign copies of her memoir, "Neon Angel," at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at Borders Birmingham, 34300 Woodward Ave. Call 248-203-0005.
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