DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

In the mid-'70s, the idea of a sultry, defiant, all-girl rock band was considered outlandish. That changed with the Runaways, whose members included Joan Jett and Cherie Currie.

The new film "The Runaways," based on Currie's memoir, tells the story of the group's rise and fall. It stars Kristen Stewart as Jett, and Dakota Fanning as Currie.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Runaways" is a curious mix. It's an exhilarating story of female self-expression that's also a downbeat tale of female exploitation. So as the '70s girl group the Runaways comes together and then slowly disintegrates, there's a simultaneous rising and falling arc which would be thrilling if writer-director Floria Sigismondi had a structure that could hold it all together.

What she does have is punkish audacity. Her first shot is a splotch of menstrual blood on the pavement as 15-year-old, future Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie gets her first period. What makes this even more outrageous is Cherie is Dakota Fanning, now stretched out and filled out. It's as if the director is saying, here's your adorable little child star. What do you make of her now? What will she make of herself?

After she's teased by her more worldly sister, Cherie dolls herself up and heads for well-known L.A. club Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, which is also where Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett heads, after buying a black leather, man's motorcycle jacket. She wants to play guitar in a rock band, but in the mid-'70s, sexist conventional wisdom said girls didn't play electric guitar. But when Jett accosts the ghoulish impresario Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, the idea for the Runaways is born.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Runaways")

Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actress): (as Joan Jett) I'm Joan Jett. I play guitar, electric guitar.

Mr. MICHAEL SHANNON (Actor): (as Kim Fowley) Oh, Joan Jett, that's a cool name. You guys got a demo?

Ms. STEWART: (as Joan Jett) No. No. I don't - no guys. I want to start an all-girl rock band.

Mr. SHANNON: (as Kim Fowley) Really? Hey, Sandy.

Ms. STELLA MAEVE (Actress): (as Sandy West) Hold on; I'll be right back.

Mr. SHANNON: (as Kim Fowley) Sandy West is a drummer. Joan Jett claims to be some sort of guitar goddess.

Ms. STEWART: (as Joan Jett) Well, I didn't say that.

EDELSTEIN: That's a juicy scene, but a couple of things knock it down a peg. Kristen Stewart is overdoing the twitchy awkwardness. And then there's that usual biopic hazard: writing too on the nose, so that you almost see the light bulb over Fowley's head: young girls, guitars - money. "The Runaways" is paced so fast that you barely register the externals before you're hurtled along to the next biopic marker.

Although Jett is the co-executive producer and Stewart the first-billed star, the Jett character is mostly a bystander: She stands by as manager Fowley drills his girl band, then stands by some more as Currie becomes the group's blonde-bombshell mascot and begins to fall apart from all the drugs and sex and Fowley abuse.

Fowley isn't thinking female empowerment. He's thinking jail bait: barely pubescent girls acting dirty and available, for an audience with as many people leering as rocking out.

According to the documentary Edgeplay," made by one-time Runaways member Vicky Tischler-Blue, the vibe among the bandmates was never very good and director Sigismondi gives scant time to other members. Late in the film, Currie and Jett have a love scene, but it happens in a vacuum. You get no sense if it altered the band's already volatile chemistry, or even what Jett and Currie made of it after the fact. The last part of the film is unfocused, with connective tissue missing. Maybe there's a three-hour cut of "The Runaways" down the line that would be more compelling.

As Fowley, Michael Shannon looks scary and stops the show with his rants, but have you ever seen the real Fowley interviewed? His creepiness is otherworldly. Shannon, even with his formidable size and nonstop epithets, seems too lovably damaged. This is Fanning's movie, and you can taste her relish in breaking out of child stardom with a vengeance.

But as she parades around onstage half-naked, chanting she's a cherry bomb and striking one sexual pose after another, you're uncomfortably aware that she's 15 years old and legally, a minor. How we reconcile that fact or can't with the thrill of her performance gives "The Runaways" at least some of the present-tense electricity that the real group had onstage so long ago.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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