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Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways
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Signed almost immediately to a major record label deal, the band was dubbed "jailbait rock" by the press and became an overnight media sensation. Edgeplay chronicles the rise of the band, its hopes and dreams, and its eventual disintegration as the result of media belittling, in-fighting and drug use amidst rumors of verbal and emotional abuse by the band's management. Produced and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Victory Tischler-Blue, one of the Runaways' bass players, the film presents an unflinching insider's view of what it was like for six teenaged girls to be thrust into the limelight with minimal adult supervision, in a "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" era hostile to female musicians.
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If you are looking for another typical, VH-1 styled look at the fun and excesses of a dysfunctional rock band, this complex film may disappoint you. Edgeplay is not a film intended to excite, gawk, or fawn over it's subjects, and I say subjects rather than "subject" intentionally, as it's a film about people, not about the rock 'n roll lifestyle. There is no whimsy for the joyful free-sex and drugs of the 70's, or any fanboy enthusiasm for The Runaways as a band.
What there is, is an insightful and compassionate look at a tragic and yet stoic group of young women, who made history, without ever recieving any praise, who made great music without ever selling many records, and who paid dearly in many ways for their now legendary status, with a good part of their childhoods.
Edgeplay is a documentary about the all-girl hard-rock band The Runaways, who so much like their tourmates The Ramones, set the next two decades on fire, without getting any of the credit or rewards.
Victory Tischler-Blue, the director, writer and concience of Edgeplay, endured a 6-year trial-by-fire getting this film made and released,(and is a story as compelling as any in her movie), and I think much of the raw honesty and poignance in this film is in some ways a direct result of that struggle.
There is an almost Dickensian cast of characters: A young, Joan Jett-Talented and driven, yet shy and unsure of herself, Cherie Currie-A striking blonde, who never expected to be a singer, and yet, much like Lana Turner sitting at a soda fountain, was chosen to be one, Kim Fowley-A slimy Svengali who unashamedly preyed on very, young girls to make himself rich, and makes no apology, Sandy West-A tomboyish, young drummer who simply loved playing her drums, and wanted no more than to spend her life doing it, Jackie Fox-A doe-eyed bassist who found out earler than the others that stardom could be an empty trophy cup, Lita Ford-Fiesty, tough, and driven, and Vicky Blue-The bassist who walked into this dysfunctional family in the midst of meltdown, and yet stayed on the outside enough, and more importantly, grew-up enough to make this incredible film.
I think Miss Blue, ex-band member and director of Edgeplay, knew something that Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind knew. Mrs. Mitchell once said about the theme of her novel, " I often wondered why some people could rise above great adversity, while others, just as brave and smart, go under. All I know is that my daddy called that quality "gumption". I wanted to write about people that had gumption, and those who didn't". Well whether intentional or not (though I expect it was), that is exactly what Miss Tischler-blue has done here.
As most will know, Lita Ford and Joan Jett managed to escape the musical ghetto that was The Runaways, to find great success in the music business. The original bassist is now a successful attorney. Cheri Currie, although never achieving the same level of success, managed to find work in Hollywood for many years, and has continued with a low-profile music and art career. Sandy West, however was plagued with misfortune after her band dissolved, falling into desperately hard times, both financially, and otherwise, and much of this is explored unflinchingly in Edgeplay.
This film works on so many levels that I sometimes am awed by it. When you watch it the first time, you see and hear the story of a rock band. When you watch it a second time however, you begin to become absorbed by the enormous differences in these women. All but one of the members, now in middle-age and 25 years away from The Runaways, still carry deep emotional scars from their experiences, that seem to transcend anything that has happened to them since. All but one of them breaks down on camera in a way that's agonizing to watch. Is it really possible to carry resentment from teenaged slights and squabbles into middle age? Once the women start talking to Miss Blue's camera, you find out that you can indeed.
The only one who does not seem affected by her experiences so long ago is Lita Ford, who I found, quite unexpectedly, the most fascinating of all. After 4 decades or so of life, I like to think I know false bravado when I see it, and yet in Lita I saw none. It's amazing to watch her face as she walks back over the same old paths as the others while recounting her experiences, and yet, to her, it was almost like describing a movie she had seen, and enjoyed, but could only partially remember; not because it wasn't exciting, but because, well....it was only a movie. Lita ends-up being Edgeplay's Scarlett O'Hara. The one who had gumption.
Of course Joan Jett became a star as well, but we'll never know her thoughts and feelings on things, as she declined to participate in the film. As I understand it, she was violently opposed to the film, it apparently not focusing enough on her, and did everything in her power to crush the film before it could be released. This is utterly mystifying, as her treatment in the film is not-at-all negative, and if anything, she comes across as rather inoffensive and hard-working. Very strange.
Edgeplay is, in many ways, the "Clockwork Orange" of rock documentaries. From the dark, sadonic tales of excess and loss-of-innocence, to the startlingly effective and moody camerawork, (which usually annoys me, but here served a real dramatic purpose for a change), this is a film that anyone can get something out of, whether you're a Runaways fan or not.
After posting a review of Edgeplay on another site, I was amazed and delighted to recive an email from the director of the film, thanking me for my good review, and expressing her relief that someone "got" what she was trying to achieve with Edgeplay. Yes Victory, because of your long journey in making this poignant, affirming, yet disturbing documentary, we all got more than we could have hoped for. Don't worry. You did good.
The Runaways were a groundbreaking rock group whose influence over the years belies their mediocre record sales at the time. Somewhat manufactured in that none of the girls knew each other before being picked out by uber-scenester Kim Fowley, they still managed to forge a raw identity of their own while rebelling against his emotional abuse. Having been a 13 year old in Los Angeles at the time of their first album release, I can personally attest to the dreams they inspired amongst their fans.
All the girls involved except Joan Jett co-operated fully in this documentary. The interviewer / director was one of The Runaways herself: Vicky Blue was the bass player who replaced Jackie Fox after Jackie left the band. Even Kari Chrome who never played onstage, but contributed songs to the first album & was instrumental in Kim's initial concept of the band is interviewed.
Cherie Curry has previously written of her experiences in her autobiography "Neon Angel" but, judging from this documentary, left huge gaps in her book. All the dirt, all the hurt, all the damage done to fragile teen egos is finally aired in "Edgeplay". Cherie admits to sexual relationships both with other members of the band as well as a long-term one with "hands on" manager Scott Anderson which left her pregnant during their European tour. Her combustible relationship with Lita Ford (who spends most of her interviews either having to be reminded of recordings or glossing over her violent temper) led to Cherie's departure from the band.
Jackie Fox (the first bass player) discusses the real reason she abruptly left The Runaways in Tokyo at the peak of their fame. The revelation leaves her in tears, and the scars from the experience remain on her body to this day.
The most affecting interviewee is Sandy West, the drummer. As with most drummers, Sandy was never an intellectual or prone to analyzing situations. She just wanted to play drums & have a good time. Greedy, manipulative power plays took her life away from her & the final scene is of her tear-streaked face wondering why the original members can't reunite & record together again. It's a wrenching scene that illustrates vividly the damage done to these young girls.
Ms. Tischler-Blue also interviews both Sandy & Cherie's mother's which provides an excellent background on how Kim Fowley was able to abuse these young women so freely. Kim himself spends his interview time blustering & dodging questions, never coming close to admitting the wreckage he made of these 7 lives.
The extras aren't much, but do provide some additional background to "Edgeplay". There is a Video Gallery, which consists of some of the background footage used with more of Kim Fowley's bluster playing over it. The only other extras are 3 different promotional trailers. Interestingly, much of the promotional footage was not actually used in "Edgeplay". The final one, called "Edge-Tap" is hilarious, and a much needed antidote to the raw emotional footage of the film.
Absolutely recommended to anyone who wants to see what really goes on in the rock world. With the current mania for tarting up young teen girls & displaying them as sexual objects on MTV, "Edgeplay" is amazingly relevant to today's music business. Get this DVD!
Unlike other reviewers, I don't see Kim Fowley as quite the abusive sleazebag they did...More, he was a banal, self-important, smarmy, drover. Did he take advantage of them? Perhaps. They didn't seem to make any money to speak of during their 5 years together--there's no mention of what Fowley walked away with, either, though. And if he used them, he also groomed them. The girls were (understandably) unprepared for the hard realities of the music business. And they didn't like it when Kim called them names. Say whatever you want about Fowley, though, he took a bunch of inexperienced, horomonal, undisciplined kids who didn't know a whole lot of music, and he turned them into professionals. He made them rock stars; he gave them a shot at something great. He just didn't seem to be very good at managing teenage girls--is anyone? They were kids, and left to their owen devices, they drank; they took drugs--lots of them; they had sex--with each other, with one of their managers, with who-knows-who else.
The film seems weirdly lopsided without a contribution from Joan Jett. She went on in post-Runaways life to enjoy the greatest fame, and it is peculiar that all the other bandmates contributed to the movie, but she didn't. This odd omission isn't even mentioned in the film, or in the extras. Jett appears, of course, in the archive footage from the 70s, but that's it.
Blue assembles footage and interviews that successfully evoke sympathy and even affection for these kids, and I would have liked to know more about what became of them after the Runaways broke up. Blue, of course, is a filmmaker. Jett is a muy butch rock star who likes to tease her fans about her sexual orientation. Ford, too, went on to become a successful musician with some hits in the late 80s (no mention of this in the movie, though). Sandy, the drummer, seems by the end of the movie bitter--she went on to become an arm-breaker and money collector for drug dealers, and to work "in construction." That's all we really know about her Runaways afterlife. What about Jackie Fox, the original bass player? Despite having fled the band after trying to carve herself up with a piece of broken glass, she seems in the interview footage to be pretty together. She is articulate, intelligent, clear.
Devoting too much time to their post-band lives would have unfocused the film, but something could have been included that would both concluded the film and resonated with what preceded it. Failing, that, something could have been included in the Extras.
Also, did I miss something here? Is there no actual recorded concert footage with music in this movie?
Maybe I'm nitpicking. I also realize that it probably isn't really a 5-star movie, for the reasons I've mentioned. Still, I enjoyed the film. There was nothing about the film I didn't enjoy. As another reviewer pointed out, this is clearly a labor of love, and therefore deserving of whatever generosit we can muster. (Parents should see it as a cautionary tale: Don't let your daughters join rock bands!)
To anyone interested in the Runaways story, or interested in the sordid machinations behind the Svengali fueled star-making machinery of the music business, this will be engrossing and will be essential viewing.
That said, it has to be noted that while Tishler-Blue has made an interesting documentary, it isn't a GREAT documentary, owing partially to limitations on archival source material available to her, owing part to the lack of participation by Joan Jett, and owing in part a somewhat too narrow, too inside approach to the story.
OK, let's take those three points one at a time:
1) Limitations on the archival source material. Joan Jett declined to participate. As a result, vintage Runaways songs co-written by Jett were not available either for the soundtrack, or for video. Therefore, for example, footage of the Runaways performing is limited to two cover songs. The soundtrack is populated mostly by Lita Ford solo songs and Suzi Quatro songs. The lack of performance footage and music isn't the only problem, however. More significant in the absence of vintage footage of the Runaways at press conferences, in TV interviews, behinds-the-scenes, etc. This footage exists, and it is not clear why none was used. The contrast between the middle aged women the Runaways have become and these women as teenagers would have added tremendously to the film.
2) Joan Jett's lack of participation. As noted, this resulted in the lack of vintage performance materials. But it also means we are not treated to Jett's perspective on the days of the Runaways. Surprisingly, this is a relatively modest loss. The interviews with the other former members are (seemingly) honest enough that they paint a pretty complete picture. Jett's thoughts would certainly have added even more color to the picture, but one doesn't actually sense that her lack of interview participation leaves as large a hole as might be expected.
3) A too narrow, too inside approach. The film takes as almost a given that the viewer is invested in the Runaways as cultural icons, and that there is little need to investigate their place in the development of pop music. While that's OK for diehards, it unnecessarily limits the appeal of this film. I think it also does a disservice to The Runaways, as there is nothing here to support the assertion that The Runaways were of lasting cultural significance. While good arguments can be made for that premise, none are provided. And while nothing kills a music related documentary as quickly as modern pop icons offering retrospective "scholarship" (see any VH1/MTV production), where is the essential commentary contemporaries of The Runaways--from artists with whom they toured or co-mingled, such as The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Blondie, etc? Where is the back story on the girls, which might explain how 14 year old girls were hanging out at nightclubs by themselves, were available to be exploited in the first place, and might help explain how each of them ultimately dealt with how things turned out? How about some more outside voices to help define Kim Fowley, their infamous manager? The meat of this movie would always be the interviews with the women themselves, of course, but framing is critical to make something more universal.
Despite these limitations, if you have an interest in The Runaways, the film still packs a punch.
Compared to the slick, bigger budget Runaways docudrama (which was produced with Joan Jett's participation, and which reflects a mostly Jett-centric view, and an almost entirely Jett Currie focus), this is most certainly the deeper film.
That said, the sad thing is that this documentary contains the outline of a GREAT docudrama: Young, naive girls with doe-eyed dreams taken in by a predatory Svengali, used, abused and discarded, with the most fulfilling part of the story how they ultimately dealt with the collapse of those early promises. There's plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to spice it all up, of course. But I think that's the far less interesting story. Too bad that's the story that, for the most part, the big budget Runaways film chose to feature. Contrasting how the different members of the group dealt with the collapse of the Runaways offers a fantastic mix of success, failure, reinvention, the triumph of tenacity, and tragedy of being unable to reconcile childhood dreams with adult realities, specifically:
Jackie Fox, the smartest one (and the one who would always have the most options available to her), drops out of the group first, goes off the grid, finds herself, goes back to college, Harvard law, and becomes a successful attorney.
Vicki Blue, replacement bassist, leaves and becomes a successful video auteur.
Joan Jett and Lita Ford: Prospects outside the music world might have been minimal, but they were driven and lucky, and ultimately found legitimate success in music on their own terms.
Cheri Currie: Directionless but benign girl has her innocence and childhood evaporate as she becomes the sexed up jailbait singer for The Runaways. She buys into the image and lifestyle, but finally quits in disgust, eventually finding a certain peace in a modest (figuratively) just outside of Hollywood existence.
Sandy West: Fox had the brains, Blue the artistic and personal perspective, Jett and Ford had the musical talent and drive and Currie was scrappy enough to find her way. West just wanted to play drums. When that went south, her life trajectory was one of deepening decent into darkness: drug dealing, jail, etc. Her interview for this film reveals that nearly a quarter of century later, she still wondered "what happened?" and was waiting for that Runaways reunion that would never come. (West died a couple of years after this film was completed).
In an ideal world, I'd end here by stating that someday, someone will make the great Runaways movie just crying to be made. But realistically, we're not likely to see another shot at the story. Too bad.
If you've seen The Runaways movie, and you're interested in further backstory, this documentary is a must. If you haven't seen either movie, and you know who the Runaways were, then I'd recommend this movie over The Runaways. If you're just looking for an hour and a half of entertainment, go with the The Runaways. But there's a lot more heart (and a lot more real sadness) in this film.