Bad Reputation Review
Although she didn't write the song, it's her band's version that was the hit, a seven-week number one in the USA, number four in the UK, in 1982. From its powerchordal guitar riff onwards, it's a key song of its time, and has clearly lasted. Its video was played heavily on the recently-launched MTV: shot in colour but most usually shown in black and white as she didn't like the look of the red catsuit she wears in it. Its title is a statement of intent. She loves rock 'n' roll.
Joan Larkin was born in 1958 in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her parents gave her her first guitar at age fourteen and she took lessons, but her tutor told her that girls didn't play rock 'n' roll. At the time, there were few role models for women in popular music other than singers or more folkie singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell. As not just singers but musicians in a band, there were Suzi Quatro (mentioned here, who played bass) and all-female or female-led bands like Fanny and Heart (neither mentioned here). But Joan's first love was the glam rock of the early 1970s. With a move to California, and her parents' divorce, Joan took her mother's birth name, Jett, professionally and legally. She met Sandy West, a drummer, and they founded The Runaways in 1977, with the best-known lineup also featuring lead singer Cherie Currie, lead guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox.
The Runaways' story has been told many times, and in 2010 became a film of that name, with Kristen Stewart playing Jett. Jett and Currie were particularly close, but there were tensions caused by manager Kim Fowley. He was keen to promote Currie, who often performed on stage in a basque and suspender belt, as a sex symbol. Currie left, as did Fowley, and Jett took over lead vocals as well as continuing as the rhythm guitarist. The Runaways broke up in 1979, more successful abroad than at home, but influential.
After the breakup, Jett was in England, and became part of the local punk scene. She began a solo career, which included as a B side, her first pass at “I Love Rock 'n' Roll”, originally a B-side for The Arrows, her version featuring Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. A turning point was her meeting with Kenny Laguna. Laguna had begun his career in the 1960s, as keyboardist for Tommy James and the Shondells, and as a songwriter. His first successes were in the bubblegum pop era. As he points out, at a time when much “serious” rock music was bloated and pretentious, there wasn't too large a gap between bubblegum, punk and the type of rock Jett played: short, hooky, fast and to the point. Laguna worked with Jett on her first solo album (Joan Jett, later reissued as Bad Reputation), which they released themselves when twenty-three major labels rejected it. Not wishing to form another all-female band, as it would no doubt always be compared to The Runaways, Jett instead founded Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.
Other than her music career, Jett moved into acting with a lead role in the Paul Schrader-directed Light of Day in 1987. She also moved into production of other bands, including Bikini Kill, a leading Riot Grrrl band, whose singer Kathleen Hanna has long credited her as an inspiration. In fact, Jett played second guitar and provided backing vocals on their EP Rebel Girl. In 2014, Jett and Laguna were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Jett performing a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the surviving members of Nirvana.
Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation tells this story in traditional fashion, a chronological journey with the subject interviewed (either solo or with Laguna, clearly a strong friend as well as working partner) along with other characters in the story: relatives, musical collaborators and friends. We hear from contemporaries such as Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, and younger musicians attesting to her influence, including Hanna, Miley Cyrus and Billie Joe Armstrong. Kristen Stewart talks about playing Jett on film, quite daunting when Jett was one of the executive producers of the film. From the archive, we also hear from those departed, including Sandy West and Kim Fowley, the latter memorably described by Iggy Pop here as looking like Frankenstein's Monster (albeit on crack). There's plenty of archive footage, and the documentary is clear on the musical connections, from Jett's influences to her own music and from her music and persona to those she herself influenced. Jett is clear-eyed about how the industry has often treated women, with the Runaways (still mostly in their teens at the time) being subjected to verbal abuse and sometimes physical, with Jett having her head split open by a bottle and cracking a rib due to a car battery thrown at her. However, there's some sense that this is very much an authorised version, with some parts of the story off limits. Jett has always refused to answer questions about her sexuality, and she's not asked here. The film does skirt around the subject, with Currie being told when she first met Jett she was either cruising her or wanting to join the band, and also mention of the fact that when Jett covered the Tommy James song “Crimson and Clover” she didn't gender-switch the lyrics. The final third of the film tends to fall into a series of episodes some of which aren't explained – we don't know the story behind her shaven-headed appearance on Roseanne Barr's chat show. So while there's plenty in this portrait of one of the most influential female rockers to be going on with, it does tend to fall short of its potential.
Dogwoof's DVD release of Bad Reputation is in PAL format on a single-layered disc, encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. It would have most likely been shown in 1.85:1 in cinemas. The new interviews were shot in HD, and display the same stylistic tic that other documentaries have: randomly switching between colour and black and white and back again. The archive footage – derived from video and film sources – is mostly in 4:3, pillar-boxed inside the widescreen frame. There's nothing untoward about the transfer and, as the film has existed in the digital realm from start to finish (archival material apart) there's no reason to doubt that this is what you would have seen in cinemas, other than the fact that this is a standard-definition DVD and cinema showings would have been of a 2K DCP.
The soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround (2.0), but the film is mostly mono for the interviews and most of the archive footage, with the surrounds being used for music. Given that this is a PAL DVD, the film is speeded up (93:32 in cinemas, 89:44 on this disc) so if you have perfect pitch – I don't – you may notice a difference in that music especially. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing available.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:53).