Svengalis and Signature Looks

A guide to girl-band-movie clichés.

The Runaways

Joining a band, especially for a teenage girl, is a rebellious act. After all, playing music has historically been a much less socially acceptable choice of after-school activity than joining the pep squad. When I heard that a movie was being made about the legendary ‘70s teen girl band from Los Angeles the Runaways—based on the memoir Neon Angel by band member Cherie Currie—I was cautiously optimistic that the rebel girl musician would finally be shown in all her glory. I thought teen-girl rockers could have a positive pop cultural moment, especially since most movies about bands show young women as mere groupies (see Almost Famous, The Banger Sisters).

And yet The Runaways, which had a limited release in March and opens widely next week, sticks to the clichéd rise-and-fall formula you would find on any episode of the VH1 show Behind the Music—or in any other movie about women musicians. Like fellow films about girl bands, from Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains to Satisfaction, The Runaways packed in as much sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll—and the side effects of all that hedonism—as it could in 90 minutes. The girl-band genre is heavy on this sort of manufactured drama. To wit: Did the Runaways really get a record deal the morning after two of its members hooked up? This hysteria is unnecessary because, as anyone who has ever been in a band (or at least seen the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster) can tell you, there’s plenty of drama inherent to a band’s creative process and interpersonal dynamics. The Runaways were rock pioneers. But their movie dwelled on cat fighting rather than telling the story of how they carved a space in rock history.

While girl-band movies portray wildly different types of bands—Spice World is the Spice Girls’ Technicolor, girl-power version of A Hard Day’s Night; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is about the dark side of Southern California hippie culture; Satisfaction chronicles the summer of an ‘80s barroom cover band—they all share key elements of an entertaining but far too predictable tale. From Svengalis to signature looks, what follows is a guide to the tropes of the girl-band movie, and how they differ from their boy-band counterparts.

Girls start bands because they come from broken homes. Without the support of a nuclear family, girls must turn to their record players for solidarity. This plot device is featured more heavily in movies about girl bands because the underlying message is that a normal teen with a solid home life wouldn’t need to turn to the decidedly nongirly hobby of music for salvation. In The Runaways, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) deals with the pain of an alcoholic dad and a mom who ditches her and her sister to shack up with a boyfriend in Indonesia by singing David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at a talent show. Cherie’s band mate Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) makes reference to not having much of a family either; she’s not even shown having parents. When Cherie tells Joan she wants to spend more time with her family, Joan responds, “Are we not your family now?”

In the Aaron Spelling-produced ‘80s movie Satisfaction, Jennie Lee (Justine Bateman), the cowbell player in the fictional band the Mystery, lives with her two siblings and vaguely alludes to her parents’ untimely death. Despite the fact that Jennie’s older brother dismisses her cover band by saying, “Your lead guitarist is a junkie, your drummer is a gangster, and your bassist”—played by Julia Roberts in her cinematic debut—”on good days is a slut,” she persuades him to let her go to the shore for the summer for an apparently desirable spot as a house band in a divey club.

Music is the salvation of the budding teen nihilist. Bands in movies are shown as a haven for disaffected teens of all genders. But for a guy to start a band, it’s an optimistic move—fame and possible fortune await, like in Almost Famous or The Commitments or even, in a sense, Sid and Nancy. Girls, in contrast, are shown joining bands because they lack a sunny worldview. In The Runaways, Cherie rejects her sister’s dead-end job—”Well, excuse me if I don’t want to work at the Pup ‘n’ Fries for the rest of my life”—in favor of hanging out at clubs and singing songs with lyrics like “Can’t stay at home, can’t stay at school.”

In the 1982 punk parable Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains,Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (played by a pubescent Diane Lane) writes songs with titles like “Waste of Time” and sneers that every girl ”should be given an electric guitar for her 16th birthday.”

Where there is a girl band, there is a Svengali. Because girls are considered more gullible or more in need of assistance, Svengali characters lurk in almost every girl-band movie. And they are not to be trusted. “This is not about women’s lib. It’s about women’s libido,” says manic, lipstick-wearing Runaways manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). While band member Joan Jett calls him to ask for more money so the band can eat while on tour, he’s shown getting intimate with a girl who looks sub-barely legal.

Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, in Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is the band manager who crosses the line from manic to maniacal. (Spoiler alert: death by sword is involved.) He replaces the band’s former manager and exerts so much control that he even changes their name from the Kelly Affair to the Carrie Nations.

In the 2001 movie remake of the bubblegum cartoon Josie and the Pussycats, the titular band is caught up in a literal brainwashing scheme by evil manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) and Mega Records label boss Fiona (Parker Posey). This movie goes one step further in having the Svengali characters set on controlling not just one band but an entire nation: They use subliminal messages through pop music to get teens to spend their hard-earned baby-sitting money on the latest trends.

Playing loud music will freak men out. “Girls don’t play electric guitar,” a music teacher tells Joan Jett. He wants her to play acoustic songs instead. But even pop acts face bewilderment from the opposite sex. A woman playing music is seen as threatening to men because they’re taking charge of their own satisfaction: writing songs, subverting the traditional female role of muse, and playing their own instruments. “One of the goals of The Runaways was to make it normal for girls to write and play rock and roll and sweat onstage,” Jett has told Billboard magazine.

At a cocktail party in the 1997 Spice Girls vehicle Spice World, Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, is talking to a guy and says, “It’s not that we want to be threatening to a male’s masculinity or anything, or be dominated, but the funny thing is when we do meet men, sometimes they get all nervous and don’t know what to say.” He responds by getting nervous and walking away.

A signature look is essential. It goes without saying that in the girl-band minigenre, the band in question must be hot. Not only should each member be svelte and conventionally attractive, but the group must have a signature style to telegraph its unique identity. The underlying message in these movies is that just being in a band is an odd choice, so to make up for that masculine energy she might be projecting on stage, she needs to play up her feminine assets. No jeans or stained T-shirts allowed.

The Spices each had their own nickname—Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger—as shorthand for their personal style. Similarly, each Runaway embodies a different female type, whether it’s the blonde bombshell Cherie or bass player Lita Ford, who’s compared to Sophia Loren. The members of Josie and the Pussycats—who sing, “I’m a punk rock prom queen”—wear some version of cat ears, halter tops, and platform shoes. In TheStains, the band finds fame after giving themselves makeovers that include skunk-style bleached and dyed hairdos, red transparent chiffon blouses sans bras, and red eye makeup that makes the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race look like they use a light hand.

The band will face challenges outside of music. During the final act of Satisfaction, pill-popping guitarist Billy (played by Britta Phillips, the voice of the animated cartoon Jem and now the female half of the band Dean and Britta) ODs, bringing the feuding band together. This is, of course, also a common trope in movies about guys making music, too, but not every band movie features plot points so resembling an after-school special. Movies about men and music, such as The Doors, tend to glamorize drug use as somehow essential to the creative process. In Spice World, the girls must rally around pregnant friend Nicola whose boyfriend left her before she delivers the baby.

A brush with stardom will almost tear the band apart. Fame has its price. This is a lesson essential to all bands movies. However, in the girl-band movie, there’s usually only one member—the lead singer—who can be a star, which creates an understandable amount of tension with the rest of the band. When the Pussycats first get signed, they talk about always staying true to each other, but get torn apart by feeling jealous of Josie (the band name is changed to Josie and the Pussycats) and by brainwashing Josie to think that her band mates are holding her down. In The Runaways, Cherie does a spread solo for a racy magazine, at the behest of Kim Fowley, causing a rift between her and the rest of the band. Even in the video for No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” the burgeoning fame of singer and sole female member Gwen Stefani is shown as being divisive. We’re only to assume this mirrored the band’s real-life tensions.

Even after the Runaways are shown as disbanded and washed up before some of the members could legally drink, the film’s epilogue makes a case for the key members’ musical legacies, with title cards that reveal the millions of solo albums sold and the band’s enduring influence. It’s a plot device better than anything scripted: Even when the band is torn apart, there is always redemption in the end.