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Review: 'Runaways' rocks, most of the time

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett in "The Runaways."
Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett in "The Runaways."
  • "The Runaways" is the story of the mid-'70s all-girl rock band
  • Kristen Stewart stands out as Joan Jett; Dakota Fanning also stars
  • Movie bogs down but has enough spark to make it worthwhile, says Tom Charity

(CNN) -- When the Runaways cut their first LP in 1976, producer Kim Fowley made sure their ages were printed on the sleeve.

It wasn't enough that he had the first all-girl rock band on his hands. These were also the girls Chuck Berry used to sing about, 16 years young (if not so sweet).

As he exults it in director Floria Sigismondi's new movie, "The Runaways," "Jailbait [expletive] jackpot!"

These days, teen sensations tend to come ready-made straight off the Disney Channel. But the Runaways were raw -- and not about to cuddle up to Mickey Mouse.

Lead singer Cherie Currie is recruited because Fowley (Michael Shannon) and proto-punkette Joan Jett (Kirsten Stewart) like her look. Can she sing?

Her experience consists of lip-synching to David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" at a high school talent show. She was booed off the stage, but she doesn't tell them that. The alternative is following in her older sister's footsteps, working in the nearest taco take-out.

Sigismondi evokes the no-frills, straight-ahead vibe of '70s drive-in flicks; the first image is of menstrual blood hitting the sidewalk. She has directed pop videos for David Bowie, Bjork and the White Stripes, and this film, she doesn't pretty up the music scene. She doesn't have to.

There's built-in excitement and energy as the band comes together to produce short, sharp shockers such as ch-ch-ch-ch "Cherry Bomb" (improvised by Kim and Joan on the spot in Cherie's honour).

A glam Frankenstein, Fowley puts the band together piece by piece in his broken-down trailer, barking for more attitude, more sex, more -- uh, testosterone.

"This isn't about women's lib," he yells, "it's about women's libido."

Of course, liberation and libido aren't mutually exclusive, even if this underground Svengali expects to call all the shots. It's his confusion on that score that probably seals the band's crash-and-burn fate.

Video: Bringing 'Runaways' to life
Video: 'Runaways' stars on red carpet

In a scene that deserves its own exhibit in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Infamy, he has the band play on while they're pelted with trash and dog excrement to prepare for their first gig. It's unorthodox, but also useful preparation for the road, Sigismondi implies.

It's a mystery how the intense and flamboyant Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") continues to fly under the radar.

The same cannot be said for Kristen Stewart or Dakota Fanning. The "New Moon" stars are the right age (19 and 16 respectively), but more importantly they seem of the right time. They suck on cigarettes, party all night, and there's not a paparazzo in sight.

Proving she's more than just a wan face, Stewart gets Jett's peculiar toughness. She's like John Garfield in a hot red jumpsuit. When the band begins to splinter and Joan starts smashing furniture around the studio, it's not about ego or bravado, it's just the frustration of someone who loves what she does and sees it slipping away from her.

Currie is a more vulnerable character, but somehow a less compelling figure. Although the movie is based on Currie's memoir -- it's lightly structured as an adolescent's coming-of-age story -- scenes picking over her fractured family relationships have a rote feel.

It doesn't help that Riley Keough (Elvis Presley's granddaughter), who plays big sister Marie, is a miserable actress -- though it's nice to see Tatum O'Neal back, however briefly, as the girls' absentee mom.

The inevitable burn-out, such a staple of the rock biopic, drags down the movie just when it's hitting stride.

It may be true that most rock dreams end with a dose of harsh, cold reality, but Joan Jett's ongoing love affair with rock 'n' roll is proof that it doesn't have to be that way. Stewart steals the show here, indicating they've made the movie about the wrong woman. Jett remains the runaway that got away.

"The Runaways" is rated R and runs 105 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.