In director/writer Floria Sigismondi’s hands, telling the tale of the rise and fall of a decidedly in-your-face (and ear) all-girl rock-and-roll band is much more than an excuse to shoot over and around some spectacular historical tracks (‘70s) between plot points.
Instead, it’s a well-crafted commentary on the framework of family—particularly the notion that if abandoned by one’s own flesh-and-blood, a surrogate unit of parents and siblings will be created to fill the void, then nurtured and—unfortunately in this instance—ruined when the unavoidable gene pool rears its ugly DNA as heredity role modelling finds incredible expression in a like-father-like-daughter scenario that won’t shut up.
Meet Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning in a bravura performance that will turn heads of all sexes). From the first drop of unexpected menstrual blood, her ascent into womanhood is most certainly not going to be a textbook rite of passage. Elder sister Marie (Riley Keough, a model of understatement) doesn’t appear to have a rebellious bone in her equally attractive body but, through incidents not of her own making, soon becomes a mother-without-a-child.
The girls’ absent father (kicked out of the nest for leaving the family’s upscale furniture ridden with cocktail-glass rings; Brett Cullen convinces in every scene) lives and dies for gin—unable to do more than call to offer a birthday greeting much less appear and eat cake.
As the film begins, Cherie’s mother announces her “places please”—yes, she’s an actor—intention of marrying Wolfgang (Time Winters) then moving the clan to live happily ever after in Indonesia.
Abandoning that Disneyland scenario, the two girls move in with their derelict dad, his long-suffering mother (Peggy Stewart is a hoot) and an aunt (Jill Andre) whose sainthood is assured. That recipe for home-life bliss—not surprisingly—becomes a motivating factor in Cherie’s quest to wrap herself in an environment which includes—at least—a modicum of love, respect and identity.
Meanwhile, in another part of LA, David Bowie devotee Joan Jett (a brilliantly dark portrayal by Kristen Stewart) learns the hard way that “Girls don’t play electric guitar” (this story is set in 1964 …). Hilariously, after the deep mysteries of “On Top of Old Smokey” are unlocked then unleashed at her high school music lesson, the talented heller puts her musical desires into the lasciviously slimy hands of Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon excels in the lecherous role). The extreme-tough-love producer/father-figure soon becomes obsessed with fleshing out an all-girl band that will not be known primarily for its music but rather “sex, violence and rebellion.”
After a typical drug and booze filled night, trolling underage clubs in search of a tempting sex-kitten who also has “lungs,” Cherie is spotted then invited to audtion and see if her sultry look and aggressive style have a “growling” voice to match.
In one of the best sequences of the production, Peggy Lee’s “Fever” is summarily rejected unheard as Kim/Joan write the infamous “Cherry Bomb” chart on the spot (which happens to be the band’s studio—a cramped, aging trailer, giving a metaphorically-rich foreshadowing of the life-on-the-road to come). Once complete and at “Daddy’s” urging to let go and embrace the crotch-grabbing lyrics, a star is born.
The remainder of the film is a fairly predictable voyage through the first road trip (paying their dues as a warm-up act; bedding the roadie—Johnnie Lewis—and each other), then a few hits and tour to Japan. As fame and cash flow increase, so does all manner of dependencies until Cherie explodes during a recording session.
The mother of all vocalists loses her brood, but like resilient kids from broken homes, they soon pick themselves up and move on (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had a great run as the next incarnation).
The truly happy ending of this story is that, unlike so many others—most recently Corey Haim—when, for the second time in her life, Cherie lost her made-up family, she was able to salvage what was left of her own and live to perform another day. JWR