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Friday, March 11, 2011

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Girl power: The Runaways — (from left) Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford and Jackie Fox — took Japan by storm in the 1970s. This image is taken from the cover of their 1977 album "Live in Japan." AKIYOSHI MIYASHITA


Jett, Currie return to Runaways era

Special to The Japan Times

Back in the late 1970s, they changed everything. And then they disappeared.

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Looking back: Joan Jett (above) and Cherie Currie were closely involved in the making of "The Runaways," which was largely based on Currie's autobiography.
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One of the very first all-girl rock bands to achieve success, teenage five-piece The Runaways paved the way for decades of female musicians to come — and more importantly, they totally rocked. Their biggest hit, "Cherry Bomb," won them fans around the world, particularly in Japan.

But within two years, under the weight of endless verbal and financial abuse from their manager, and a blaze of drug and alcohol addiction, the band imploded. Jailbait vocalist Cherie Currie — 15 when she joined the band — walked out, never to return. The remaining members limped on with founding guitaristbacking singer Joan Jett taking on lead vocal duties. Then eventually they fizzled out — until now.

"Joan and I were sitting there watching the girls perform for the movie, and tears were streaming down our faces, because it was the first time we actually got to sit in an audience and watch The Runaways," Currie, now 51, tells The Japan Times, by phone from her Southern California home about a new biopic based on and named after her old band. "That's how close the movie is to the real thing."

"The Runaways," which opens March 12 in Japan, tells the story of five teenage girls trying to conquer the world — and it tells it exceptionally well. So it should: The movie is based in a roundabout way on the book "Neon Angel" by Currie, and has Jett on board as executive producer.

"The movie gives you a sense of what it was like to be in The Runaways," says Jett via telephone from an airport on the way home from a benefit gig in Seattle. Jett, 52, has enjoyed the most solo success of all the Runaways, becoming a self-made megastar when she released a cover of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" on her own record label in 1982 and playing to this day with her band The Blackhearts.

The movie stars Dakota Fanning as Cherie and Kristen Stewart as Joan; the two "Twilight" starlets perform for real, singing and playing Runaways songs with relish, from their shaky, shambling beginnings (Currie had never intended to become a singer until she was invited to audition for The Runaways) to their fierce punk-tinged rock 'n' roll peak.

"I think the girls really felt like a band," says Jett. "Kristen played (guitar) a bit before (making the movie), but I think this forced her to play every day. Dakota took some vocal lessons. Kristen nailed my vocals. I was really astounded at how alike she sounded to me; I couldn't tell the difference."

The movie came about after Kenny Laguna, Jett's longtime collaboratormanager/partner in Blackheart Records, agreed at the start of the millennium to help Currie to find a publisher for a new version of her autobiography, which had originally been published under the same title in 1989 in a watered-down version for a young audience. Currie now wanted to write a warts-and-all account that detailed her descent into drug and alcohol abuse as The Runaways grew famous and the damage she sustained from it.

Before finding a publisher for "Neon Angel," Laguna instead found a movie deal, with producers John and Art Linson and River Road Entertainment taking interest in backing a screenplay. The deal was that Currie and Jett would be involved in the process, and that Jett would sign on as executive producer to keep the story authentic. Jett would end up attending the movie shoot every day: "I saw my job as being to stay around and force them to keep it as true as possible and to help Kristen with anything that she needed."

The obvious question is how much of the movie was based on real events and how much was embellished. It's a packed flick, charting the band's rise but also their fall — and lingering uncomfortably on the period of crisis in between. While both Currie and Jett insist that events on screen are as close to reality as possible, they concede that it was necessary to grant director Floria Sigismondi a little creative license.

"I was with the band for two years, and how do you put that amount of adventure and heartache and triumph into an hour and a half?" says Currie. "There's a lot of stuff in my book that did not make it into the film."

When The Runaways came to Japan in summer 1977, they practically caused a meltdown. They were the fourth most popular foreign-music import at the time, behind only ABBA, Kiss and Led Zeppelin in terms of sales and ubiquity, and went on to record a gold-selling live album here. Fans mobbed them at Narita airport, tore out chunks of the girls' hair, surrounded their car, hung around their hotels and turned out to the band's Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya gigs in droves.

"I remember some of the girls getting really scared," recalls Jett. "I was thrilled. That's what you join a rock 'n' roll band for, to cause this kind of craziness. It felt like The Beatles to me."

While The Runaways tended to draw male fans in the United States and Europe, in Japan their fans were mostly female. "I feel that (Japanese) women were very repressed," considers Currie. "We were speaking for the girls, and I think that really resonated with them. And we were living a dream; I think that's what everybody wants in life."

Once we start discussing Michael Shannon's portrayal of Kim Fowley — the hyper-obnoxious Svengali who barked at and heckled the band through fraught rehearsals, pushed them to up their game, got them signed to Mercury Records and then pocketed most of the cash — Currie and Jett offer differing opinions.

"I think a lot of it's close," says Jett. "To me the part that's missing is the humor and the warmth between Kim and I, and from time to time with all of the girls. It wasn't as harsh and one-dimensional as it might seem in the movie."

"Oh my god, you know what?" laughs Currie. "I almost preferred Michael Shannon's version, to be honest with you, because he was funny, ha-ha. Kim Fowley was a little more sinister (than his screen portrayal) and not quite as colorful — and yet colorful all the same."

It was apparently Fowley's relentless abuse — name-calling, sexual innuendo, hiring kids to throw garbage at the band during rehearsals — that caused Currie to quit The Runaways. She says that he apologized to her a few years ago, and indeed Currie, Jett and Laguna successfully sued Fowley in the '90s for rights to the band's name and master recordings. In the end, says Jett, Fowley even contributed his side of the story to the film's production.

"Kim seemed to have his finger on the pulse of what was gonna make this happen," recounts Currie. "The guy actually did it. He had his eye on the success and he drove us as hard as he could drive us and he tried to prepare us for the worst. But the abuse gets old after a while, and we were growing up very fast, so we started rebelling against him as well — and each other."

Preceding the movie's release, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts last month released their "Greatest Hits" in Japan via Victor Entertainment; Jett hopes an opportunity will arise soon to tour Japan, following her blistering appearances at the Summer Sonic festival in 2009.

Rewriting her book spurred Currie — who had quit music in the early '80s to become an actress and, later, a prize-winning chainsaw artist — into playing music again, performing a set opening for Jett at the Pacific Amphitheater in Los Angeles in August last year. This summer she will release her first solo album in 31 years, which she describes as "great rock 'n' roll with a little bit of '70s flair, but updated." Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum is handling production duties on the as-yet-untitled album, with guest appearances from Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Brody Dalle and Currie's son, Jake Hays, whose father is "Airplane!" star Robert Hays.

"I want to go back to Japan and perform again; that's one of my dreams," says Currie with conviction. "That was really the highlight of my teenage life. Nothing could really top it — except to go back again at 51."

"The Runaways" opens March 12; Giovanni Fazio reviews the film on today's Re:Film page. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts' "Greatest Hits" is on sale now.

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