Thick black eyeliner, smeared glitter, and a messy hairstyle: the perfect look for the leading woman of a band. Screaming fans and press junkets fill their days. Surrounded by bandmates, managers, producers, and press; these women are rarely given a moment to themselves. These women take center stage in the films The Runaways (2010), Vox Lux (2018), and Her Smell (2018). Inspired by real-life icons like Joan Jett, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Dolores O’Riordan, the women in these films are anything but glamorised. Their struggles with alcohol, drugs, and the exploitative music industry shape their stories by bringing the dark side of fame to light.
The Runaways (2010)
Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways is based on the true story of the 1970s punk rock band led by Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, drawing inspiration from Currie’s memoir Neon Angel. The film follows Jett and Currie from the start of the band to Currie’s departure, capturing the all-female group at the height of their fame. Joan (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie (Dakota Fanning) are both teenagers thrust into the life of making music and touring after being discovered by music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Fowley views The Runaways’ music as a business opportunity, telling them that their product is “Sex, violence, and revolt.” His support turns increasingly sour as the film progresses, revealing his greed and sexism in the process. After the film’s release, the real-life Fowley was accused of rape, showing that men in power feel they can abuse the young people they have far too much control over.
On tour, the teenage girls are surrounded by drugs and alcohol, exacerbating Cherie’s tendencies to use them as a coping mechanism. The women of The Runaways made some great tunes — “Cherry Bomb” is a feminist rock anthem — but they should not have had to endure abuse from their manager and grueling hours to make that music.
Vox Lux (2018)
Unlike The Runaways, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is not based on a true story. Instead, it’s about a fictional pop star, Celeste (Natalie Portman) who was thrust into a music career after a song she made with her sister took the world by storm at just thirteen years old. A young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) wrote the song while recovering from a near-fatal school shooting, channeling her trauma into a music career. Even with her goal of making something positive out of tragedy, Celeste ends up with a manager (Jude Law) who is a lot like Fowley from The Runaways. Nearly twenty years into her music career, it’s clear that Celeste is anything but happy. Her image in the media is colored by a drunk driving incident, angry outbursts, and an unhealthy relationship with her manager, who passes her pills to get through the day. Celeste is electric and infectious onstage with an empowering message of resilience, elaborate dance numbers, and loads of adoring fans. The dichotomy of Celeste’s persona becomes clear when she breaks down just before her performance. Her sister, despite their fraught relationship, runs in to comfort her. “I am sick of everybody treating me like I’m not a person,” Celeste says, voicing the agony of living in the public eye while recovering from trauma. Celeste’s experience points out the unrealistic expectations placed on popular singers, especially when they’re women. Unlike a male singer, Celeste is expected to display a certain level of emotion. Her career was built on a traumatic experience, so each time she performs, a part of her trauma is put on display once again. Vox Lux, though difficult to watch at times, is a much-needed examination of the effects of trauma and fame for a prolonged period of time.
Her Smell (2018)
Her Smell is a horror movie dressed like a drama. Long shots of the chaotic happenings backstage are nearly dizzying, making viewing the film feel like sinking into madness. Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) is drowning in herself. As the fan-favorite lead singer of the punk rock band ‘Something She’, Becky is treated like a superhuman, with fans chanting her name and everyone bending to her will to keep her content. Many scenes show Becky looking in the mirror, typically while she sticks out her tongue and laughs maniacally. Becky’s self-destructive behaviors affect everyone around her including her bandmates, managers, ex-boyfriend, and even her toddler. Still, Becky’s magnetism pulls them in, rendering them nearly incapable of leaving her or forcing her to get help for her addictions with drugs and alcohol. Eventually, Becky’s career goes downhill as the band loses popularity over time. She gets help and makes amends, ultimately returning to the stage with her band. In the end, Something She performs together one last time. As the crowd begs for more, Becky decides to forgo an encore, choosing her daughter and well-being over fame.
The leading women of The Runaways, Vox Lux, and Her Smell, though distinct, share a common thread of exploitation at the height of their fame. From the outside, each successful star seems like they should be having the time of their life, but that’s far from the truth. Each woman faces issues with addiction, exploitative managers, and family problems that detrimentally affect their livelihood. The world knowing your name is a surreal experience and, like Celeste says in Vox Lux, they are not being treated like human beings. These women, and many others in the music industry, are thought of as ideas, products, song machines, but rarely ever human beings with emotions, limits, and needs. Cherie, Celeste, and Becky are messy and problematic. But they are also hurt, traumatized, and struggling. It’s vital to see imperfect women like these onscreen to draw attention to the pitfalls of fame for female musicians.