When Cherie Currie sang "California you're so nice/California you're paradise," the irony in her voice—all that petulant Valley Girl boredom and indifference—reflected a new cultural mood in Los Angeles. While hot rods, bikinis, and tasty waves abounded in the songs of the Runaways, just as they had in the music of the Beach Boys, Currie's detachment implied that the idyll Brian Wilson had been crooning over was anything but real.
One of the great achievements of The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi's new film about the legendary band, is to evoke that particular paradise—the real one, that is—in fine detail. Southern California in the mid-1970s was evolving, and as the Runaways' raw sound presaged, it was time for the mellow country-rock vibe then dominating the Sunset Strip music scene (think Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and the rest of that Topanga Canyon crap) to move over for the polymorphous perversity of glam and punk.
In her review last week of The Runaways, the LA Weekly's Karina Longworth described the Los Angeles of this period as "dystopic." (I think she meant dystopian.) And yet as compared to the overdeveloped, smog-choked collection of exurbs it is today, I can assure you as someone who was there that the Southern California of that era was, in its own fashion, so nice. To give you a sense of what I mean, here are some key things to look for in the film.
The grass is never green. Nevermind the cruddy condition of the Hollywood(land) sign, one of the few clichés Sigismondi resorts to. The dry, patchy, yellow lawns out front of the movie's working-class tract homes are a much better indicator of a paradise fraying. There were historic droughts in Southern California in the 1970s, to be sure, but the truth—as anyone who has seen Chinatown knows—is that water has always been a rare commodity in Los Angeles, and in those less affluent neighborhoods of the city this is what front yards often look like.
Robert Romanus. Early in The Runaways, an out-of-touch, middle-aged music teacher tells Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett that girls don't play electric guitars. The chauvinist in question is played by Robert Romanus, an actor best known for his performance as Mike Damone, the shiftless ticket scalper of the ne plus ultra of SoCal teen movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Before that, Romanus also played a high schooler in Adrian Lyne's Foxes (1980), an exploitation classic set in the San Fernando Valley. The story of four troubled young girls not unlike the members of the Runaways, Foxes starred Jodie Foster, Scott Baio, and Cherie Currie, who, having left the band that had made her semi-famous, tried to break into pictures. When an old friend of Joan's says "I heard Cherie's doing a movie" and when Cherie herself, played by Dakota Fanning, says that she's "trying to do the acting thing," Foxes is what they are all talking about.
Rodney on the ROQ. In The Runaways, the principal characters first meet at a nightclub called Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco. As depicted in the fascinating 2003 documentary, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Bingenheimer's club introduced Southern Californians to glam, thus shaping the sound of Los Angeles bands for decades to come. There is an undeniable line of influence connecting David Bowie to the Runaways, but also to X and the Go-Go's, to Guns 'N' Roses and Jane's Addiction, and to the Stone Temple Pilots and beyond. The English Disco is the reason. In the final scene of The Runaways, Bingenheimer is shown years later in his new job as a DJ at 106.7 FM, KROQ. In this capacity, Bingenheimer educated another generation of SoCal kids in underground and alternative music currents, especially those imported from the UK. The first time I ever heard Bowie, Roxy Music, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure, were on his show.
Pup 'N' Fries. Due to the abundance of authentic and actually good Mexican food everywhere in California, Taco Bell was never one of the more popular fast food chains throughout the state until around 1984, when the company bought up and dissolved a frankfurter-cum-taco empire known as Pup 'N' Taco. In The Runaways, Marie Currie, Cherie's twin sister, works at a drive-in shack called Pup 'N' Fries, a place that probably serves french fries, instead of tacos, to go with the hot dogs. (The original Pup 'N' Taco sold all three items). Presumably, the name was changed to avoid any legal hassles, but when Runaways producer Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, threatens to fire Cherie by telling her, "You can go fold tacos with your better-looking sister," it doesn't really make any sense. Personally, for cheap/guilty eats, I always preferred Del Taco.