BY B. SIMM
Although she got massive MTV exposure in 1981 with a definitive version of the Arrows’ little known single, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Joan Jett, like the Ramones, who she shared the same primal, three-chord virtues with, never sustained the level of success and recognition her MTV hit kicked the door open for.
Bad Reputation, directed by Kevin Kerslake known for his skate/surf films and ‘90s “alt-rock” video fun, sweeps through Jett’s career by combining historical detail, punchy live clips and candid interviews. It’s a nice romp starting with a teenaged Jett (real name Larkin) getting her first guitar, forming the Runaways, breaking out on her own with the Blackhearts, dabbling into acting, supporting human rights and being an animal activist.
Jett says her first guitar teacher was dumbfounded by the songs she wanted to learn, and responded flatly: “Girls don’t play rock ‘n’ roll!” Bad Reputation is largely, if not entirely, about girls playing rock “n” roll by way of depicting Joan Jett’s struggle and crusade to do so.
What’s compelling about the doc is Kerslake’s contrasting choice of interview subjects who were inspired by Jett and validate her talent and determination: Kathleen Hannah praises and cites Jett as her mentor helping to pioneer a feminist frontline with Bikini Kill, while Miley Cyrus credits Jett for unleashing her sexual stage manners. Iggy Pop (sitting in a gold throne every inch the godfather of punk) recalls the sleazy days of L.A. knowing the hellfire Jett evolved from. Coming from a different L.A. perspective, punk’s ethical spokesman, Ian MacKaye, raves about Jett supporting and trying to establish The Germs in a hostile climate. Michael J. Fox also fully endorses Jett as the real deal when they worked together on the film Light Of Day. There’s a wide range of personalities giving Jett a wide range of kudos.
Perhaps the biggest contrast in the film, and in Jett’s story, is between Kim Fowley, the Runaways’ exploitative svengali, and her longtime producer, friend and biz soulmate, Kenny Laguna. Where Fowley faulted the Runaways as sex objects, Laguna, who Jett calls “a feminist”, helped to drive and cultivated her ideals that became the bedrock for girls and boys (too) who wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll.
Jett’s true success transcends her fleeting MTV moment. Scrap away all the facades of fame, all the hype and posturing, Joan Jett looms large amongst those who refined rock ‘n’ roll as an honest art form rather than just another consumer sport.