Making a film about the Runaways was an inherently risky venture.  First of all, their story was no rags-to-riches fable: the film’s main source, Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, is a grim, despairing and frequently sordid cautionary tale about the perils of the rock music business.  Making an extremely faithful version would be completely uncommercial but cleaning it up too much would betray the story.  When the film finally rolled before the cameras, it did so with controversial casting choices and a director who’d never made a feature.  It was a proposition full of question marks.

Thus, it is a relief to report that The Runaways isn’t a disaster or a betrayal of its subject matter.  In fact, it’s actually pretty good.  It’s neither whitewashes nor wallows the story’s gruesome details.  Instead, it takes a novel route into the heart of its subject as it delivers the excitement and the mood of its era.  The end result isn’t flawless but when it connects, it conveys the passion of glam rock/pre-punk era better than any film since Velvet Goldmine.

The Runaways uses the rise and fall of the title group as the basis for a meditation on that feverish time when women were making their first real strides into the boys’ club of heavy rock.  Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is a Valley girl who wants to be a female David Bowie and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is a butch, independent-minded teen with a burning desire to become a Suzi Quatro-style rock goddess.  Both are met with resistance at all turns but neither can abandon the fantasy.

Cherie and Joan’s paths cross when scenester/producer/con-artist Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) takes notice of Joan’s femme-band idea and puts the two together with some other girls to hash out a Fowley-led concept of what rocking women should be.  “The Runaways” is what emerges and, for a short while, it works like a dream.  Things ultimately fall apart due to infighting, the pressures of showbiz and Fowley’s manipulations.  The two heroines ultimately take different paths out of the band’s wreckage – but not before they form a bond that transcends the mayhem that forged it.

The Runaways has been criticized in some quarters for being too true to familiar rock bio conceits while also pulling the punches of its real story.  How true either charge is depends on a particular viewer’s perspective.  In fairness to the critics, writer/director Floria Sigismondi omits certain facts – for instance, the fact that Currie had an abortion after an ill-fated affair with a road manager or that she did a Fowley-produced solo album after leaving the band – and reshuffles other details to fit a more conventional narrative structure.  She also indulges herself with familiar scenes like the rise-to-fame montage and the classic “band rehearsal argument that becomes a breakup” scene.

However, The Runaways avoids fictionalizing the events in favor of synthesizing them into a coherent package oriented around the bond between Currie and Jett.  Sigismondi handles their relationship with subtlety and warmth: even when it briefly dips into romantic love, these moments are handled with a mature approach to sexuality and desire you don’t normally see in a rock movie.  If there is a problem with a story, it’s that the third act suffers from some narrative drift before ending on a strong final scene.  Said third act could have used some tightening/refocusing but it’s never less than watchable – and the film’s carefully-defined atmosphere carries it throughout.

The film also benefits from strong performances across the board.  Stewart is both convincing and amazingly natural as Jett, showing none of the fussy, Method-style mannerisms she is often criticized for in certain teen-vampire flicks.  Fanning isn’t a perfect fit for the role of Currie, being a bit more waifish in looks and persona than the genuine article, but she overcomes this limitation with a committed performance and an effective sense of chemistry with Stewart.  Both also do their own singing and deliver nicely on that front.

The other bandmates have less to do but Scout Taylor-Compton offers a glowering, unexpectedly tough performance as Lita Ford and Stella Maeve registers strongly as earthy, party-hearty drummer Sandy West. However, the big scene stealer is Shannon as Kim Fowley.  Everything you’ve heard about his perfomance is true: he’s a veritable force of nature as he rants, raves, cajoles and browbeats his young charges down the path to infamy.

Finally, and most importantly, Sigismondi nails the feel of the music and translates its passion and excitement into visual terms, thus giving it all a genuine visceral punch.  Whether the band is writing “Cherry Bomb” in a dirty trailer or working themselves into a euphoric frenzy playing “Dead End Justice” before a frenzied crowd, Sigismondi captures the transcendent power of the music via seamy yet atmospheric photography, savvy editing choices and an eye for period detail that sets the scene without dominating it.  Her one-two punch of style and mood smooth over the storyline’s bumps and ensure that The Runaways is a potent voyage into the female-rocker mystique.