By Kim Hughes
It’s impossible to fully gauge the influence Joan Jett has wielded on two generations of rockers as a musician, band leader, and a feminist icon. But judging by the legion of heavyweights — Jett contemporaries and knock-kneed fans — stepping up to testify in director Kevin Kerslake’s richly watchable doc Bad Reputation, it’s immense though, as with The Ramones, Jett’s impact is perhaps disproportionate to her actual record sales.
Like the woman herself, Bad Reputation offers little of Jett’s behind-the-scenes personal life, keeping the spotlight tightly focused on her career first with trailblazing girl-group the Runaways (and they were girls; Jett was just 17 when they launched in 1975) through to her more complex and lasting work with the Blackhearts. And what a thrill ride!
Though the Runaways period feels well-documented — notably by director Floria Sigismondi’s spot-on 2010 film starring Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie whose memoir Neon Angel inspired the story — Jett’s post-Runaways career provides the film’s most compelling arc.
That she and musical partner Kenny Laguna unsuccessfully shopped Jett’s solo debut to 23 American record labels before forming their own independent Blackheart Records is a stark reminder that the music business has always been dicey and often deaf. But that just amps up the drama here. Jett’s breakout victory in 1981 with the I Love Rock 'n Roll album and title track feels entirely earned, Jett’s tireless comportment in the face of endless and often aggressive sexism a dynamic rallying cry.
Two things give Bad Reputation additional spark: its wealth of often surprising celebrity interviews (Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, Kathleen Hanna and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye we were expecting, Miley Cyrus not so much), and its deep dive into the circus-like aspects of the business as conducted by onetime Runaways manager Kim Fowley — a yang counterpoint to Malcolm McLaren’s yin if there ever was one — and Laguna, without whom Joan Jett & the Blackhearts would almost certainly be less than they eventually became.
Jett’s own candid recollections provide a superb backdrop, not to mention heaps of context, for everything unspooling on screen, especially her forays into the British punk scene at the height of the Sex Pistols. It’s also fascinating to watch the ease (and credibility) with which Jett slid between punk and straight-up rock as few others have.
Still, as Martin Mull famously and allegedly quipped (there’s debate about the quote’s provenance), “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s hard to describe exactly how fun it is to watch the performances and archival footage generously offered in Bad Reputation. Suffice to say rock fans with a bellyful of beer will have a ball.
Bad Reputation. Directed by Kevin Kerslake. With Joan Jet, Cherie Curie, Miley Cyrus, Kathleen Hanna, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend. Plays September 29, and October 3, 12 at Toronto’s Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema; opens theatrically September 28 in Montreal; and is available September 28 on iTunes and On Demand.