Little Joan Marie Larkin saw the rock quartets on TV in the 60s and early 70s, and decided she just HAD to have a Sears Silvertone electric guitar for Christmas.
“I can’t be the only girl who wants to do this,” she later remembered thinking.
She wasn’t. As Joan Jett, she crashed the boys-only rock guitarist club, faced sexism, critical dismissal and rock fan and music label abuse..And before she was through — and she’s not done yet — she’d formed two iconic bands, had a decade of hits, dominated MTV and crunched and crashed her way into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s no surprise that the story of rock’s original female badass makes for a gritty, inspiring documentary. “Bad Reputation” arrives as the Queen of Rock Guitar turns 60 (Sept. 22), and filmmkers Kevin Kerslake and Joel Marcus give the tenacious feminist icon her due in this thorough and thoroughly entertaining look at her career and life.
She burst out of the “post-Stonewall” glam-rock era, getting her start in feminist LA in the mid-70s. She met drummer Sandy West and started piecing together the “all girl” band of her dreams, with producer/impresario Kim Fowley recruiting Jackie Fox, Lita Ford and Cherie Currie as lead singer. Badgered by Fowley, Jett and Currie concocted their most famous song, “Cherry Bomb,” in mere minutes.
And as they rehearsed, he’d throw things at them, prepping them for the reception that the mostly-male rock club crowd would give him, scenes memorably recreated for the movie “The Runaways.” Jett remembers those sessions as “our boot camp.”
With its lead singer blonde and performing in a corset and fishnet stockings, The Runaways created a stir. But the rock establishment — record companies, critics and Rolling Stone, Cream and Crawdaddy magazines — weren’t having them. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie appear in the documentary, expressing dismay at their treatment.
As “The Runaways” movie was in pre-production, I interviewed producer Art Linson and we shared memories of how the band was dismissed. The rare Rolling Stone piece on them claimed there were teen boys jerking off in the front row of their shows. That’s the way Jann Wenner’s magazine covered them.
But they were out there, and they didn’t back down.
“Tell me I can’t do something and that’s something I’m sure to do,” Jett (who took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name) declares.
To underscore that, the film shares DECADES of sexist TV and radio interviews, laugh out loud funny to see now, but grating for a driven performer leading a band that wanted to be about more than sexuality. Fowley, whom Iggy Popp describes as “like Frankenstein’s monster, but if Frankenstein’s monster was on acid,” molded their image and invented their notoriety.
The band became legend.
“There were a lot of girls who didn’t want to be Joni Mitchell,” Iggy says. “They wanted to rock and roll. And then along came The Runaways.”
“Bad Reputation” gives us a glimpse of The Runaways’ peak-then-flameout moment, a Beatles-like reception in Japan, where Fowley’s last manipulations (financial and personal) broke them up.
We see Jett’s spiral into near-suicidal despair, friends intervening because she was self-destructing with booze and drugs, “hanging out with Sid Vicious, Stiv Bators, all these guys who’re dead, now.”
And then she met her musical soulmate — songwriter/producer Kenny Laguna. A self-described “bubble gum” music master, Laguna and others make the case that bubblegum was the precursor to punk, and that’s the kind of punk he envisioned for Joan — creating a Blackheart band and record label partnership that endured anonymity, self-released LPs and decades of bad to indifferent record deals and then sudden, hard-earned fame and glory.
Most of her/their hits were covers — “I Love Rock’n Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” but she could co-write tunes just as gritty and anthemic and popular — “Bad Reputation” and “I Hate Myself For Loving You.”
Kristen Stewart remembers Joan’s edict for playing her in “The Runaways,” to remember to “pussy the guitar” onstage. Michael J. Fox recounts her acting technique in “our rock’n roll cancer film” “Light of Day,” as “scary,” and gives as much of a clue about her sexuality as Jett herself does, that “She doesn’t care what you think” her sexual orientation is.
No, she still doesn’t discuss her sexuality. Never has. But the fact that she covered “Crimson and Clover,” and was a producer and supervisor of her legacy on the film biography of her breakout band, “The Runaways,” answered that better than any revelation she might be saving for a late-life book.
Debbie Harry declares Joan the very definition of “Rock and roll animal.”
Billie Joe Armstrong marvels at how she led the way, creating her own record label and own success, a model for all the punk, grunge and metal bands that followed.
We see Jett playing for the troops and hear United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley hail her as her icon.
But mostly what we see and hear, in interviews old and new, is a musician who made it all about the music, fighting to do it her way, clawing at stardom, fading from fame and coming back to the Warped Tour, arena tours, back to state fairs and small clubs, mop-topped, close-cropped blonde or bald, working up a sweat and leaving it all onstage.
Yeah, she used sexuality, just like the guys. But here’s someone who made it to “icon” one show, one power chord at a time, and who never ever sold out along the way.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual references, some drug use and brief nudity
Cast: Joan Jett, Miley Cyrus, Michael J. Fox, Kristen Stewart, Billie Joe Armstrong, Rodney Bingenheimer, Debbie Harry
Credits:Directed by Kevin Kerslake, script by Joel Marcus. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:33