Taking a guitar lesson in school, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) was told by the music teacher that girls don't play electric guitar. She immediately plugged in and performed a mocking version of "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley." This early scene in "The Runaways" establishes the theme of female determination to enter the male-dominated rock world.
Jett approaches producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who agrees to take her on. They find Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) in a club and hire her to be the lead singer based upon her image. They quickly put The Runaways rock band together and Fowley trains them in "women's libido." They're taught, in a ramshackle trailer, to play fast, raw rock and to do so with defiance in front of skeptical teenage male audiences.
Jett and Currie partake of glue-sniffing and cocaine binging; growing up in the mid-1970s in southern California, the girls' behavior is attributed to a lack of parental supervision. Jett, however, had an inner drive and focus, while Currie, more vulnerable, succumbed to drugs and stopped performing (the film is based on Currie's memoir; she later became a sculptor).
Director Floria Sigismondi offers a complex depiction of the rock lifestyle and its effect on these female pioneers. There are feminist themes and themes of exploitation; Fowley has Currie take some cheesecake photos; the girls are advertised as "jailbait." The sex, drugs, rock and roll and adulation are all there, but so is the unvarnished price of excess. These elements are presented without romanticizing or moralizing, adding up to a portrait as raw and real as the music.