Rebel Girls: Cherie Currie and Joan Jett on The Runaways Biopic

by Elizabeth Thompson

"I told her 'You've got to feel like you're God. You've got to feel like you're bigger than life,'" Runaways singer Cherie Currie says of the direction she gave Dakota Fanning on performing the band's songs in their upcoming eponymous biopic. Fanning, who plays Currie in The Runaways, out March 19th, apparently listened carefully. Early clips released of the film, which chronicles the ascent of the '70s all-teen-aged-girl rock 'n' roll band, featured the once-child star strutting around in a corset as she sings the Runaways' snarling teen anthem "Cherry Bomb," pulling her microphone up between her legs, wrapping the cord around a garter-belted thigh, and making adults feel just as uneasy as Currie did 35 years ago. Dressed in clinging jumpsuits and clothes most school dress codes forbade, the Runaways sang about sex, drugs, and jail before most of them could drive. Cherie Currie, rhythm guitarist Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, bass player Jackie Fox and drummer Sandy West were a parent's worst nightmare and an angsty teenager's dream come true.

Written and directed by music video director Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways is based on Currie's 1989 memoir Neon Angel, which follows her whirlwind stint in the band from 1975 to 1977 and her eventual struggle with drugs. The book, originally marketed as young adult non-fiction, has been re-released by Currie to coincide with the film and is now intended for an older audience. New scenes describe the emotional abuse the band experienced from Runaways manager and producer Kim Fowley (who often referred to them as "dog vomit" and "dog cunts"), her strained relationship with her mother, and her father's descent into severe alcoholism.

The book's most difficult scenes, however, include Currie's accounts of being raped at ages 15 and 17. Her first assailant was the boyfriend of her twin sister Marie. According to Currie, the rape, which occurred before she was in the band, was pivotal in shaping the tough exterior she would keep through out her adolescence. Shortly after the incident, Currie cut her hair to look like David Bowie's, whom she idolized, modeled her stage persona after, and still describes as someone she "will be forever indebted to." In Neon Angel, she writes that as she snipped away her hair with a pair of her mother's scissors, "I found myself feeling stronger....I would be David Bowie. I would be ugly-beautiful, horrible and handsome....Not afraid."

(Above, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie on stage. Photo courtesy of

Fanning also makes herself over in the The Runaways, but Currie says the rape is not mentioned as the motivation. "There were some things I argued with, that I thought needed to be in the movie," Currie says. "When Dakota made the transformation, or when I made the transformation, and cut my hair, there were reasons for that. I didn't just decide to do it. There was a rape. I was angry. [The filmmakers] just didn't want her character to lose her innocence so early on in the film." That said, Currie is happy with the finished product. "Any life story can't be put into a hour and a half," she says, later adding, "If I didn't have the book, I would be more disappointed."

Joan Jett, who executive produced the film and who is played by Kristen Stewart, preferred that some information was omitted. "There are probably a million stories that would be interesting to people, but they're not things I necessarily want to be out there," she says. It was more important to Jett that the movie stress the importance of young people choosing their own paths in life. "You're going to make mistakes," she says. "Life isn't always beautiful. But when you make mistakes you want them to be your mistakes. You don't want someone dictating your life."

Though the Runaways chose their own paths, their career was plagued by misogynistic record executives, music journalists who asked them what made them "think" they could play their instruments, and management who pocketed a majority of the band's money. Despite their difficulties, Jett says what the Runaways could mean for other girls interested in forming rock bands was always vital. "I thought about it all the time," she says. "I was sitting in Hollywood and going to this club, [Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco], wanting to play guitar and thinking 'I can't be the only girl in Hollywood, in Los Angeles, California, who wants to play rock 'n' roll. There have to be other girls out there like me.' It was not only about finding [my band members], but once I found them, inspiring other girls. It seemed like a no-brainer. Like everyone would be excited to see teen-age girls playing rock 'n' roll. I guess I was just super-naïve -- I never anticipated the sort of shit that girls would take."

Jett, who has had a successful career post-Runaways with her band, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, says she has seen little change over the years. "There's this image in the media that women have arrived," she says. "No matter what world you're talking about: the rock world, the business world. Women are the presidents of companies now, so it seems like women must have arrived, right? But it's just not the case for any woman trying to make her way. Talk to Hillary Clinton. She's dealing with the same shit. If a woman asserts herself, if a woman is strong and knows what she wants, she's a bitch, she's a cunt, she's a dyke, she's a whore. If a guy knows what he wants, he's a leader. He's a go-getter. He's a cocksman"

(Above, The Runaways. L-R: Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox and Sandy West. Photo courtesy of

The Runaways were hard on each other as well. Tension and jealousy, particularly between Currie and guitar player Lita Ford, came to a head at a photo shoot in 1976. Currie locked herself in a dressing room after she commented about Ford arriving late and, Currie alleges, Ford kicked in the door. Currie quit the band that day. "We had Kim Fowley in the middle of this, pitting us against each other," she says. "He thought there should be tension in the band at all times, that it would be better. You have to remember that we were kids. We had nobody there taking care of us and keeping us talking. We were out there on our own, in the middle of a vast sea of insanity."

Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fuchs, whose stage name was "Jackie Fox," refused to participate in the film (drummer Sandy West, who formed the Runaways with Jett, died of cancer in 2006). Ford has also made comments to the press claiming Jett's manager Kenny Laguna, who helped the band secure the rights to their music in the '80s, offered her a mere $1,000 for her life rights. Jett says it was she, not Laguna, who contacted Ford about the film and that "all Kenny ever did was try to get the Runaways to reunite," an idea she says even Ford pushed for at one time.

In Ford's unflattering statements about Laguna, however, she has consistently maintained she still loves Jett. Currie, too, writes in Neon Angel that Jett's friendship was her saving grace as a teenager and that she's grateful the two were able to re-unite. She also writes that Jett "became a strong sexual attraction" while they were band mates. Though Neon Angel doesn't go into detail about the nature of their friendship, The Runaways focuses on Jett and Currie's closeness, and includes a much-hyped kiss between Fanning and Stewart. But Currie, who says she also experimented sexually with Sandy West, chalks these relationships up to little more than hormones. "Joan OK'd that scene and thought it was beautiful because that depicts exactly what it was," she says. "We were just friends and growing up and learning about life. We weren't in love."

Despite their problems in the past, Currie says she has always felt fondly toward her band mates. "I couldn't listen to any of the Runaways music for twenty years," she says. "I missed Joan so much and I missed Sandy and I even missed Lita on really bad days. Joan had a vision. She knew what she wanted. The band was extremely important to her, as it was to Sandy West. I wish those old wounds could be healed. It's outrageous to be going on all of this time."

Similarly, Jett regrets that The Runaways didn't receive the entire band's blessing. "I thought we were extremely good musicians. I still hold to that today," she says. "Sandy and Lita could out-play any guy on their instruments. I really hoped that all the girls could have been involved because the Runways have always been really important to me, no matter what is said by anybody. Nothing well ever change that. "

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