LA, 1975. Feminism is taking off, and the women’s liberation movement in America is well underway. Joan Jett emerges, “like a naive kid” amongst the spark collisions of Bowie, Susie Quattro, quaaludes, Stonewall, the destruction of the nuclear family, the bomb, and the corruption of America by Rock n Roll culture following the hippie movement of the sixties.
Liza Minelli in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret isn’t an immediate association that springs to mind when thinking of Joan Jett, the rock star who traverses gender, clad in black, a shock of spiky black hair, growling voice, but it’s a snippet of trivia that adds a layer of understanding to how her image came to be, watching Cabaret on TV with her mother growing up, “Cabaret, Hollywood, and the idea of playing music all fused into one”.
Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation doesn’t explore just Jett’s rock star image and the added layers of hostility and confusion that her gender brings to the term ‘rock star’ but also, how cinema weaves its elements within the world of music, it’s aesthetic and subcultures, cinema and music as creating its own little world (that The Runaways have songs such as Hollywood and Johnny Guitar is fitting). Or like a wheel is for a roulette game table.
Interspersed with archive footage, and talking heads of members of The Runaways, Kerslake’s doc journeys through Jett’s Runaways years, her collaborations with Kenny Laguna to her now-iconic status, shedding light on a story of 70s rock and roll that is really a study of a turning tide in the fight for gender equality tunnelled through music.
Despite the supposed sexual revolution that was in full swing, any story of Jett and The Runaways will never be a glossy, gossipy doc of 70s sex, drugs and music, but always an investigation into the deeper fight for women’s equality that is brewing, and still fermenting to this day. Jett describing how rock n roll made you “wanna do it” is quietly revolutionary, a way of announcing that despite how 70s rock is remembered – chauvinist rock gods and female groupies – the music was for the girls too.
Bad Reputation is an uncomfortable watch, if not only for the fact that the abuse of female singers – now taken not just in the pages of tabloids and newspapers, but on social media – is still as prevalent as in the 70s. At only 15, Jett’s image of an all-girl rock band – a thrill at being the “only ones to do it” – quickly turns sour, with Jett recalling being called a “cunt, whore, slut”, having her rib cracked by a battery thrown at her onstage, being spat on, all just for being a girl, wanting to do what the boys do.
Listening to their songs in this context dishes them up as a rebel yell to the boys that wanted them to shut up and be quiet like good girls, an articulation of swelling female rage. Jett’s story seems as much a victorious “fuck you” to an industry dominated by men as well as a literal demonstration of why feminism is needed – then, and now – more than ever.