A rock-doc without much sense of what fans most want to see or what newcomers most need to know, Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation pays little attention to the most exciting parts of Joan Jett’s pioneering music career and only really settles into its portrait once that career has hit its peak. Despite ample access to its subject and testimonials from both Jett’s contemporaries and the younger stars she inspired, the film is a disappointment, and has limited value for viewers hoping to experience (or relive) the years in which Jett proved a woman could rock as hard as the boys.
The doc starts with Jett recalling the Christmas gift that pointed toward her future: a Sears guitar she requested for Christmas around the age of 13 — and that’s nearly the extent of what we learn about the childhood of a girl whose name we don’t even hear in the film. (Jett was born Joan Marie Larkin; she later adopted her mom’s kick-ass maiden name as her stage moniker.) Kerslake is similarly vague about how she got from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles: The singer paints a good picture of the English Disco nightclub there that catered to teens enamored of David Bowie and T. Rex, but the film’s ADHD cutting would rather toss out non sequiturs about Quaaludes than follow up with personal details.
A trailblazing rocker gets a mediocre doc tribute.
Though an interview with Iggy Pop offers a tantalizing introduction to Kim Fowley, perhaps the most consequential person in Jett’s career, the movie is otherwise vague about the man who promoted her first band, The Runaways. Allegations that other Runaways have made about being harassed or raped by Fowley are absent: The worst we hear about him is that when the band toured Japan, he let promoters sell a souvenir tour book that looked like a girlie mag, with more cheesecake photos of singer Cherie Currie than info on the musicians.
How did this group of teenage girls become stars in Japan? Who the hell knows? What we do come to understand, thanks to Jett and to the recollections of Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, is that the rock establishment hated them as soon as it was clear they wanted to be more than a novelty act.
There’s too little performance footage of the Runaways here, but one clip suggests much about the group’s appeal: As Currie launches into their song “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin,” the lead singer sounds like she’s in any of that era’s very forgettable hard-rock acts; only when Jett gets a turn at the mike does the song sound like something.
The Runaways fell apart after that Japanese tour. Jett had a rough spell of hard drinking, considered joining the military to get her life together, and suffered a heart infection that could have killed her. The doc has no interest in establishing a sense of chronology here, but gets curiously detail-focused as the prospect of a solo career materializes: A bubblegum-pop veteran named Kenny Laguna is called in to help Jett fulfill some contractual recording obligations, and will remain at her side for all the decades to come.
The pair invested in themselves, recorded a demo and were rejected by every label they approached. (We see a letter, signed by then-Arista chief Clive Davis, in which the exec who is so proud of his hit-spotting talent says he has “no use for this material.” Four of the five songs on that tape wound up being hits.)
Interviews with people like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye help make the case that Jett is important not just for the hits she had with new band the Blackhearts (“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”; “Crimson and Clover”), but for the DIY way she conducted her career and her supportive attitude toward younger musicians, especially women. But the film invests as much energy in chronicling these legacy-building years as it does to her MTV prime.
Yes, we admire the entertainer’s “a gig’s a gig” ethos, which had her giving as much to crowds at a mid-’90s state fair as she would to a packed arena, And we respect her dedication to causes she cares about. But even a PETA die-hard might agree that footage of the singer at an animal refuge could be cut in favor of early-’80s concert material. As for persistent speculation about Jett’s sexuality, the doc follows her lead by never addressing it — but can’t resist offering soundbites from her and others that make that silence frustrating.
Production companies: BMG, Blackheart Films, Inaudible Films, Submarine Entertainment
Director: Kevin Kerslake
Screenwriter-editor: Joel Marcus
Producers: Peter Afterman, Carianne Brinkman
Executive producers: Dan Braun, Kathy Rivkin, Justus Haerder
Directors of photography: Kevin Kerslake, Greg Olliver
Composer: Jacques Brautbar
Rated R, 93 minutes