Bad Reputation Review
Rock documentaries have come thick and fast of late. We’ve had Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits, The Public Image Is Rotten, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., and even ’90s pop stars Bros got in on the act with After the Screaming Stops. The problem with too many of these docs, though, is that they feel so proscribed by or in awe of their subjects that nothing genuinely new nor revelatory emerges from them. Unfortunately, Bad Reputation – the story of Joan Jett – is very much in that mould.
Born Joan Larkin in 1958, The Runaways guitarist turned I Love Rock ’n’ Roll megastar had a happy, well-adjusted childhood but the woman fans know and intermittently loved through the ’80s, only really came to life when, at the age of 13, her mum and dad gave her a guitar for Christmas. Under the wing of Los Angeles Svengali Kim Fowley, she teamed up with Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford to form The Runaways, an all-girl rock band who enjoyed brief success with the likes of Cherry Bomb but split acrimoniously during a tour of Japan.
The best stuff in Bad Reputation mostly comes early on when director Kevin Kerslake compellingly evokes the LA music scene of the mid-late ’70s, especially Hollywood hotspot Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, which we’re told was a “club full of a bunch of weirdoes in a city of weirdoes” and counted the likes of David Bowie and Slade amongst its patrons. The late Fowley – perfectly essayed by Michael Shannon in 2010 movie The Runaways – should have a documentary all his own. He was a disturbing and controversial figure, who according to Iggy Pop – one of many impressive talking heads here – “looked like Frankenstein, if Frankenstein was on crack.”
Jett’s at her most interesting and candid when talking about the difficulties The Runaways faced as an all-girl band. “It went from [being called] ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ to ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘cunt’ once people knew we were serious,” she says, going on to list the injuries she suffered while playing gigs – her head split open by a bottle and a cracked rib from someone throwing a car battery at her. No wonder Jett fled briefly to London, which was more welcoming, where she hung out with the Sex Pistols and declared herself a punk.
You forget just how young The Runaways were and photos of lead singer Currie in a basque and suspenders at the age of 17 or 18 just seem horribly inappropriate and sleazy. The band's rise and fall is dispensed with in barely 10 minutes here, but throws up some amusing clips; one from a strange but very formal Japanese variety show, another featuring a panel of middle-aged men snootily putting Fowley through the verbal wringer.
The remainder of the first hour concerns Jett’s up-and-down post-Runaways career, especially her long-time partnership with producer Kenny Laguna. Forming the Blackhearts, her success peaked with 1981’s I Love Rock ’n’ Roll album, but by 1984 and only two albums later, she was struggling to break the Billboard top 50. We see the usual litany of label problems, booze and drugs, before a successful comeback but, as Jett’s career in the musical mainstream dwindled, so the documentary flails around for a direction.
Jett is notoriously guarded about her sexuality and it’s left entirely unexplored here which is odd as a relationship with Currie is strongly alluded to in The Runaways movie of which she was an executive producer. We are told of the singer's work with animal charities, involvement in the ’90s riot grrrl scene, see her performing with the remaining members of Nirvana and visiting US troops abroad. But the last half-hour is presented as little more than a series of events – then this happened, then that happened – without any real attempt at drilling beneath the surface of her views or experiences.
Some of the most intriguing material pops up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them clips that are presented without any context. For instance, what’s the story with Jett’s shaven-headed appearance on Roseanne Barr’s late and, I imagine, entirely unlamented chat show? And why is US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, namechecking the singer in another brief sequence? Perhaps it’s trying to suggest all sorts of people – across the political divide – dig Jett but for someone who so enthusiastically embraced punk and riot grrrl, Trump shill Haley seems an odd individual from whom to seek endorsement.
It does, however, underline the main problem with Kerslake's film – Jett is a complicated individual, with inconsistencies and hypocrisies aplenty, and it would have been nice to see some of them more fully explored.