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Kim Fowley on 'The Runaways' film: 'Every movie needs a villain, and I’m a good one'

March 10, 2010 |  5:42 pm

There are different accounts as to what happened behind closed doors at Runaways rehearsals. The punk-leaning Runaways had a brief, crash-and-burn history in the mid- to late '70s, and the upcoming film based on the story of the all-female band, which opens March 19 in Los Angeles, will present a Hollywood version of that history.

But regardless of who's doing the telling, one point that seems widely agreed upon is this: The band's onetime manager, Kim Fowley, is crazy. Fowley doesn't wholly dispute his image. "I'm the psycho Svengali," he said to Pop & Hiss earlier this week. "But I was just trying to make a living."

In the film, in which "Twilight" vet Kristen Stewart gets a rock 'n' roll makeover as Joan Jett, Fowley is played by Michael Shannon, a foulmouthed impresario who isn't above throwing dog excrement at the teenage band he managed. 

"The Runaways" isn't the first film about the group. A 2004 documentary titled "Edgeplay," written and directed by former band member Victory Tischler-Blue (known as Vicki Blue in her days as the Runaways'  bassist), levied multiple allegations of verbal and borderline sexual abuse toward Fowley. 

The upcoming film "The Runaways" is itself based on a book, "Neon Angel," by the band's singer, Cherie Currie, which presents Fowley as aggressive and domineering in relation to the band he helped form. Fowley famously referred to the group as "sex kittens" and "jail-bait rock," and it's been said that he called the band members "dog meat" to their faces. It should also be added that Jett and Curie weren't old enough to vote when the Runaways cut its self-titled debut in 1976. 

"Kim told my mother that I was going to be a rock star," Currie is quoted as saying in the 2001 book "We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk." "That I was going to be the next Bowie, the next this and that. How could you refuse? Within two weeks, he had a deal with Mercury Records ... two weeks after my fifteenth birthday."

Lead guitarist and vocalist Lita Ford, who has publicly distanced herself from the film, is quoted in "The Neutron Bomb," by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, as saying that Fowley's name-calling eventually "became pretty funny," and Jett herself downplays the tenseness of the situation. Currie, however, adds, "We were lower than dirt -- that's how he made us feel. That's how he kept control over us."

Fowley, 70 and still working today on another all-girl project dubbed Black Room Doom, shrugs it all off. "There wasn’t AIDS. There were no computers. There was no digital marketing. It was a totally different time. There was no political correctness. Enjoy the history."

Credited with introducing the band members, and often working as their producer and co-writer, Fowley didn't tour with the band, and ultimately acrimoniously split from them. He talks to Pop & Hiss about "The Runaways" below.

So what was your reaction to seeing the film?

I have two of them. On a good day, it’s a musical version of "Rebel Without a Cause," and on a bad day, it's a nighttime soap opera with some rock 'n' roll music. From a marketing perspective, it's a coming-of-age movie that works.

And the actor Michael Shannon's take on you?

Micheal's a genius. Michael is the new Christopher Walken. 

He comes off as a bit insane.

It’s Cherie Currie’s version. Remember, Cherie wrote the book, and they adapted her book for the screenplay. That’s her impression of me, and they expanded it and used poetic license. 

So you commented on an earlier Pop & Hiss post about the movie, and this is how you described Michael's performance: "He portrays me as a cross between 'Citizen Kane' & a 'Vampire From Outer Space.' "

Possibly. After seeing the final version, I would say, ‘Darth Vader as a used-car salesman.’ That’s what it is. Every movie needs a villain, and I’m a good one. 

Yet now that you’ve seen that played back to you, how do you feel about an audience taking away that impression of you?

I’m not an audience. I think an audience is going to be entertained, and this is an entertaining movie. 

How is your relationship today with Joan and Cherie?

I saw them at the wrap party, and everyone was polite. Joan and I had a collaboration as songwriters. She was John Lennon and I was George Martin. With Cherie, I was Roger Vadim and she was Bridget Bardot.

This whole experience seems to have scarred a lot of the participants. Lita Ford, for instance, has distanced herself from the film. There were lawsuits, name-calling, etc. It’s a situation that spawned a lot of bad blood.

I call it the Runaways jinx. Certain bands have a jinx. There were some sad chapters of the Ramones’ final days. The Sex Pistols started out one way and ended up another. The Who were a jinxed group. Elvis was jinxed. Not everyone was the Mills Brothers, where they had no conflict for 55 years. I think for the Runaways, that was part of the fuel -- the tension. Thirty-five years later, it’s never been fixed. I suggested to various people that we all go in a room and acknowledge we’re all over 50, and see what happens. No one was interested. How many people do you know from your fourth-grade class?

That’s a little different.

No, it’s not. The Runaways was a project that was a professional working thing. It didn’t come together organically. They had separate sets of friends and schools. They were the same age, but had different interests and backgrounds.

Between "Edgeplay" and this, where does the truth lie?

In the movie that will never be made. "Edgeplay" was all the people who weren’t Joan Jett. The Kim Fowley footage was bought from VH-1, and they edited in the movie implying I was with the remaining Runaways. That was one filmmaker’s view of what happened. This is Cherie’s book brought to the screen by Floria Sigismondi, so this is their view. Everyone has their view. If you read all the Beatle books, they’re all different. The Elvis books are different. Look at the Bible. There’s different versions of the Bible. 

Were there things you wanted to change from Cherie’s book?

How could I change something I didn’t write or create? There was nothing to change. My only requirement was to say, "Hello, I’m still alive and I still work." I have basic life rights, and there are boundaries within those rights. All human beings have certain basic rights -- even people in hospitals or graveyards and jails. 

But Cherie’s book doesn’t paint you in the best light.

That’s her point of view. That’s what she says happened, and they adapted that. The issue is whether or not this is a good movie, and the answer is yes. This is not a historical document. 

There are scenes in the film where you are throwing dog excrement at the Runaways.

I did whatever was needed for them to turn into something interesting enough that a movie was made about it. As far as throwing dog [waste], I don’t remember throwing that at anybody, nor was any thrown at me. It could have been atomic bombs. It could have been bologna sandwiches. It’s interesting that it was dog [waste]. I didn’t see a dog in the movie. Who was the dog? I don’t remember a dog being in the studio. If that was true, where is the dog? How did we get the dog [waste] from the dog to my hands to them? That’s my question.

But you did whatever was necessary?  

But not that. I had male and female friends bring things to throw at them, so when they played punk shows they would be used it. They had a good laugh of it. People in their age group were throwing bits and pieces of a room at them. Then, two days later, in real life, the same thing happened, and they were happy it happened. Ironically, Cherie wasn’t in [rehearsals] that day. That happened in August, and she joined the band later in the year. The food drill happened before she was in the band. Poetic license. 

There’s an important line in the film in which the Kim Fowley character says the band is not about women's lib, but is instead about "women’s libido."

That wasn’t my line. That was a line a writer or adapter created. I had a similar sentiment, but that’s not a quote.

But I was curious of your reaction to the sentiment. 

The sentiment is right. I produced Helen Reddy, and she was a feminist. Her content and the Runaways content were different. I produced both of them.

Yet the Runaways were part of a scene that was very much about liberation, in all its forms -- at least that was punk at its most ideal. That's a mission statement about little more than sex.  

No. It’s what a football coach tells his players. It’s what a drill instructor tells his soldiers. You’re going off to fight in a war. You’re not going to cruise Hollywood Boulevard in your mom’s car. Girls were about to go onstage in front of people you don’t know, yelling and screaming. This is what it’s going to be like. You’re in boot camp. Prepare for this. This is what we are doing. That is all that it was. 

Now, from the point of view of the girl who wrote it, it may be different. But you’re talking to me, and that’s how I remember it. They weren’t in dresses. They weren’t in lingerie. They were in T-shirts and blue jeans, except for a Japanese photo session that I did not arrange and was not aware of.… It was always blue jeans and T-shirts. They were tomboys.

What have you learned about constructing a band versus a band having to be an organic thing?

There’s no difference. It’s all grind. Whether the guys farm themselves or you farm them or it happens like "American Idol," the public either buys it or they don’t. There’s nothing sacred about the process. 

Was there something you wish the film had shown that it doesn't?

We had, I thought, a crusade, to save rock ‘n’ roll. There was no punk rock. There was no MTV. We had just gone through Vietnam. Kansas was really big. No Ramones. No Sex Pistols. The Runaways, for a very brief period of time -- August of 1975 -- was the only rock ‘n’ roll band in America. That’s what I thought was the story. That’s not the story on the screen. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl and her family issues and her musical adventures. It’s Cherie’s story, and whether it’s entertaining or factual or sad or tragic, it’s her statement. It’s interesting, enjoyable and watchable, and from that perspective, it works.

Tell me about Black Room Doom.

The premise is a group of girls show up in a Hollywood studio at noon and they don’t know each other. We form a band, and break up the band at 6 p.m. Whatever happens between noon and 6 p.m., we film it. They were musicians and singers and actresses and models. They recorded and played without knowing each other’s name. We all had pizza together. 

--Todd Martens


Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning get wild with 'The Runaways'

Fanning and Stewart attend 'Runaways' school of rock

Top photo: The Runaways in 1977: Lita Ford, from left, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West and Joan Jett. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Middle photo: Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Jett in "The Runaways." Credit: Apparition.