There’s no denying that the world of rock and roll is historically one that has been dominated by men, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, The Who, the list goes on and on and on. That doesn’t mean, though, that women haven’t managed to factor themselves in to this boy’s club. There have been several contenders for the crown of ‘Queen of Rock’ over the years, with the likes of Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, even Tina Turner brought up with each round of debate. I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that Joan Jett is undoubtedly the most bad ass of them all.
Named after the breakout album that cemented her place in rock and roll history, Bad Reputation is a documentary that charts the career of Joan Jett, from her early beginnings in the all-female teen band The Runaways to the long and established success of her second band, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Woven together by talking head contributions from Jett herself and several of the key players in her history, the film tells a vibrant, energetic, at times tumultuous, if not slightly messy story that serves as a great ride for fans of the rock star. There is no doubting that the plethora of archive footage and atmospheric stills are a real treat to see, but the credits roll with the sense that nothing beyond the surface has really been scratched.
The narrative feels almost like a bus ride from A to B, slowing down to show us the sights out of the window at the most important stops, but never really allowing us to get off and explore in more detail. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time being show around this particular world, but nothing particularly revelatory or ‘new’ is revealed along the way, which is something that I have some to expect from a documentary like this. It is less a peeling back of the curtain and more of a thorough look at the fabric. For someone like me who is more than happy to just spend some time in the company of one of my favourite musicians, this is more than worth the admission price, but I can’t help being left with the feeling that the documentary is ultimately a fairly tame telling of what was clearly a wild ride.
The mysterious aspects of Joan Jett remain mysterious, with most of her personal life being ignored over the details of her musical trajectory, and whilst I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that at all, it does end up feeling somewhat repressed as a result. You come away with a renewed appreciation for her trailblazing attitude and determined spirit, but at the end of it all you know no more about Jett as a person than you did at the start. But after all, I suppose the most important thing is the music, and for what its worth, the film definitely highlights and showcases her charismatic performing brilliantly throughout.
The story is told by a cast of interesting and high profile contributors, and that helps to give the film a sense of authority even if the cherry picked nature of the narrative can feel a little ‘fan servicey’ at times. Chief among the talking heads is, of course, Joan Jett herself, who exudes a sort of no nonsense head strong charisma that make it easy to see how a fourteen year old girl could have founded a world famous band before she should even get a driver’s license. She doesn’t talk particularly fondly or negatively about any era of the tale, more so in a matter of fact way, almost as if to say “yeah, obviously I had this success, obviously I’m in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, what else would I have done?”. And you do certainly get that sense about the star, if anyone was ever born to do something, Joan Jett was born to play guitar and sing rock songs. Nothing else makes sense.
Further interesting (if not revelatory) insights are provided by, among others, Debbie Harry, Billie Joe Armstrong, Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart and, of course, many of Jett’s previous band members including Cherie Currie. The whole thing proceeds as a combination of testament from those who were on the journey, and stories of fandom from those who were subsequently inspired. The ‘old married couple’ interaction and relationship between Jett and her long time manager Kenny Laguna is the sweetest and most insightful thread of the film. The closest thing the audience gets to a real look behind the curtain. I wish there could have been more content like that.
Overall, Bad Reputation gives a greatest hits style look at the life and career of Joan Jett. None of the darkness is dwelled on for too long, and one can only imagine there was more darkness than average in a story starting with an all-underage, all-female rock band that takes a turn in to alcohol and drug abuse. That’s obviously not the story the filmmakers were looking to tell, and that’s fine, because what you get instead is a more blinkered focus on the music, the aesthetic, the pop culture influence, and I just so happened to think that all of that is pretty damn cool.