Film Review: Joan Jett – Bad Reputation

This film was a timely arrival for me. I had just recently watched the 2010 Runaways biopic with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and have recently been catching up with the back catalogue. It’s a funny thing, you sort of always knew and accepted that Joan Jett was a rock and roll badass, but it’s only when you stop and revisit that you realise just how much, and fall in love a little bit more. And I suppose it is a timely milestone for Ms Jett herself, as she turned 60 last week.

Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation tells Joan’s journey in rock and roll, starting with her first guitar aged 13 and being told by a music teacher that girls don’t play rock and roll, through to her induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some 45 years later. It is perhaps an indicator of how far we’ve come, looking back on how The Runaways, the world’s first successful all-girl rock and roll band, were mistreated, marginalised and exploited by the predominantly male music industry, and rock scene. If nothing else, the stuff they were asking 16 year old girls to do then will make you wince a bit now.

But, none of that detracts from the genuine success the band enjoyed, and the genuine empowerment that this success showed to teenagers everywhere. Though no joy ride, there’s a tremendous sense of fun, and of passion, to be seen in the archive footage of the band, and of the superstar Joan that they would launch.

As she relaunches as solo artist, we see someone who is breaking new ground in rock and roll history. From a woman fronting a rock band, demanding to be taken seriously and choosing her own path, through half a dozen major labels that signed and blundered the Blackhearts because they just didn’t know what to do with them, through starting their own label Blackheart Records in 1980, Joan and the Blackhearts were constantly treading their own path, and leading the way for others.

All this I suppose you can get from the history books, but what the film does give you is a certain insight into the human aspect. Joan’s relationship with long term Blackheart Kenny Laguna is a riot to watch onscreen, as they bicker like an old couple, but share an obvious tender bond. Particular mention must go to the scene where the two of them try to gaffa the crotch of Joan’s catsuit together backstage – man, we’ve all been there, right? And there is the, I suppose obligatory, it’s lonely at the top moment, where she explains she chose music above romantic relationships, as evidenced in a grainy 1980s TV interview clip.

Outside of her own work, there is a surprising array of other material covered too, such as her involvement with Riot Grrrl producing bands like Bikini Kill, her bizarre acting stint in the 1987 film Light of Day with Michael J Fox and touching on various bits of activism; feminist, LGBT and animal rights. Possibly one of the cutest things you will see all day is Joan Jett snuggling up to a pig, trust me on this. I think one of the simplest and telling quotes in the film is from someone at a farm charity – “Joan always turns up”. If you ask, or she can help, she always turns up.

This film is, it must be said, your standard format rock documentary – talking heads, old tapes and stills, interspersed candid footage of life on the road today. But where it shines is the subject, and the quality of the material. The woman is undeniably a rock and roll icon, and Kevin Kerslake has gathered an excellent array of archive material and some great interviews with peers and high profile fans (Iggy is excellent value in this one, Billie Joe Armstrong is irritating but makes good points, Debbie Harry is fabulous). A well-paced and enjoyable biog that any music fan will enjoy.

Bad Reputation premieres in the UK at the London Film Festival on October 13th, and then cinemas October 26th. See for more details.

Header image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.