The Runaways are considered the greatest female rock band of all time, and there are two films that tell their story: Edgeplay, a 2004 documentary, and Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 Runaways biopic. For a 38-year-old man who always revered Jett and the band since adolescence, these documents caused formative crush moments, the impact of music, and hard questions about how the effects of abuse should be reconciled with grand tales of teen girls defiantly rocking out in a man’s world.
As a twelve-year-old boy growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, I had already been crushing on Joan Jett when a good buddy’s Cool Older Brother introduced me to the band Jett was in before she got the world to scream “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” He handed me their 1977 “Live in Japan” album and told me to put it on the turntable. “Dude, Cherie was badass.”
The album answered all my questions. I played “Cherry Bomb,” first, recognizing the title from Jett’s “Yellow Album.” It was the same song, but I’d never heard it like that. Cherie was indeed badass. Joan was even more badass now that I knew she held sway over screaming masses with this angry, oversexed supernova who defiantly screamed to the world that she was the fox we’d been waiting for. Oh, and a more careful look at the credits and jacket photos revealed that Lita Ford, the metal world’s lone guitar goddess, was dealing out serious licks and heavy riffage. Back then, if you loved hard rock, girls were the ones who had their choice of sex symbols to enshrine in poster form in their rooms. Here was an entire quintet who seemed ready-made for the boy I was. Sadly, the band broke up five years before I played “Live in Japan” for the first time. I couldn’t understand, with all the talent, attitude, and roiling heat they brought to the table, why they didn’t rule the world before calling it quits.
One could imagine how an assembled group of high school girls would burn out in a male-dominated industry against the freewheeling milieu of the drug-addled ’70s, but the drama monger in me wanted to know just what tore this band apart to the point that there was never a reunion of any kind. “Edgeplay” came along to chronicle the reasons behind the implosion and more.
Victory Tischler-Blue, known as Vicki Blue when she replaced Jackie Fox on bass in the band, wrote and directed “Edgeplay” in 2004. Cherie Currie, Fox, Lita Ford and Sandy West chronicled their times in the band with candor. Joining them also was Suzi Quatro (a profound influence on Jett), former producer Kim Fowley, as well as others who managed or associated with the band. Joan Jett, who owns the rights to the Runaways catalog, balked at including any of the band’s music in addition to refusing an interview. Blue decided to press on, enlisting Ford and Quatro to fill in the soundtrack’s holes, underscoring archive footage of the band in their heyday along with a sobering chronicle of emotional, psychological, and implied sexual abuse at the hands of Kim Fowley and others who were supposed to look out for them.
Fox tells of how she was a prime target, manipulated and often humiliated by Fowley, beat up a couple times by Ford during some of the guitarist’s cocaine benders, and details frankly about a hotel room suicide attempt culminating with her quitting and being dumped on a bus in Tokyo with a plane ticket back to the USA. Lita Ford chronicles that she endured constant manipulation and degradation from Fowley because she wanted nothing more than to be a success. The most poignant element of this film, however, rests with drummer Sandy West, who succumbed to cancer in 2006.
She recounts musical bond she formed with Ford, as well as the meat grinder atmosphere and its effects on the music as well as how they related to one another. West’s segments illustrate the musical divide between the five of them, the sense of pride she always carried with her about her work on the band’s four studio albums, and the palpable sadness that they never got back together for even one show, as she spent most of her adult life working construction and breaking kneecaps for lower rung loan sharks and bookmakers. While no one in the film blatantly says Fowley or anyone else sexually abused or raped any of them, West glides along the surface of the question with narrowed eyes and, after a long pause tells Blue, “I’m not the one to ask about that.”
Currie tells of Fowley’s intimidation and predatory tendencies, as well as how her dysfunctional family life before the band fueled her white-hot stage persona and sexual escapades in the band. One event she touches upon is when Fowley brought all five of them to a motel room, told them to sit on the bed, then proclaimed “I’m going to teach you all the correct way to fuck.” She doesn’t go into further detail in “Edgeplay,” but in the expanded edition of her 1989 autobiography “Neon Angel” she tells of how Fowley made them watch him have sex with a woman afterward.
Currie’s last day as a Runaway quantifies the environment they had to constantly work in. During a photo session, she prepared to leave early as previously agreed upon with the photographer, who smashes his camera in a fit of rage when it’s time for her to go. As she got back into street clothes as quickly as possible, Ford kicks open her dressing room door, a stream of rancorous profanity preceding her intentions of physical harm. Jett separated them and Fowley decided to sell their contract and cut his losses after his Bardot quit. Three weeks later, Cherie started work on an album with her sister Marie, and the four remaining Runaways went into the studio to record “Waitin’ On The Night.”
One would expect the lack of Jett, often described as only one who got any semblance of respect from Fowley and the glue that held the band together, to diminish the film’s impact, but this isn’t the case. Blue sits back and lets the story unfold in the remaining band members’ own words, along with Fowley, Quatro, and others privy to their five-year run. As the story unfolded, I expected to feel sorrow that my formative adoration for Jett and the rest would be forever tainted. This bittersweet memoir doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for them, or to feel the gravity of yet another “Hollywood eats its own young” tale. This film let me experience the pride they felt in knowing they made great music, despite being subjected to manipulation, objectification and abuse at the hands of those who mentored them. It is the sense of catharsis and release they pass on to the audience that has made “Edgeplay” a fitting legacy of survival and enduring musical power against overwhelming odds that resonates to this day.
Keep your peepers wide for part 2, in which I delve into the 2010 Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning biopic and how it stacks up against the documentary. In the meantime, check out trailers, stills and more at the “Edgeplay” official website.