In control of her reputation: BIFF to screen 'Bad Reputation' at Pittsfield opening night
"Girls don't play rock 'n' roll," Jett recalled a music instructor saying at her first lesson.
This anecdote comes at the beginning of "Bad Reputation," a documentary directed by Kevin Kerslake that takes its title from Jett's 1980 hit song and debut album. The film traces Jett's career from her days in The Runaways up to her 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, highlighting her perseverance in a patriarchal industry. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this winter before Magnolia Pictures acquired its North American rights, and it will open the Pittsfield portion of the Berkshire International Film Festival at Beacon Cinema on Friday night. (It can also be viewed on Sunday night at Great Barrington's Triplex Cinema.)
"I always knew that Joan was a bad---, but I didn't know the depths of [how much she had to overcome]," BIFF Artist Director/Founder Kelley Vickery said, noting that she grew up listening to Jett's songs.
Jett formed The Runaways, an all-female group, in 1975 with drummer Sandy West. The band released its first record in 1976 and quickly developed a major following overseas, though audiences in Los Angeles and the rest of the U.S. weren't as keen.
"England got us more," Jett says at one point during the film.
The group had to tolerate music reporters who asked them lewd questions and unruly spectators. Jett reveals that her head was once split open up by a beer bottle and that a battery cracked a rib.
"Just because I was a girl," she reflects.
The group's downfall came quickly and in no small measure because of decisions made by producer Kim Fowley. The film examines the effect of The Runaways' dissolution on Jett before training its lens on her relationship with Kenny Laguna, the producer who helped Jett resurrect her career with "Bad Reputation" and, subsequently, the band the Blackhearts. (They made the song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" famous in 1982.)
"A lot of the story is Joan finding a soul mate," "Bad Reputation" Executive Producer Dan Braun said of Jett and Laguna's bond. "They're not sexual partners. They're creative partners."
Through archival footage, extended interviews with Jett and cameos from prominent figures such as Miley Cyrus and Nikki Haley, Kerslake and company convey Jett's enduring impact on rock 'n' roll and feminism. (Jett will not be in attendance for the opening, as she is currently touring. An opening night party at the theater will precede the 90-minute film's screening.)
Braun, who grew up in Stockbridge and served on BIFF's jury in the past, has worked on multiple music documentaries with Submarine, the distribution company he helped found. One summer while he was at Monument Mountain Regional High School, he had a radio internship. He remembers the first time he heard The Runaways' album, "Waitin' for the Night."
"That was like a sea change moment for my youth," Braun said.
He finds that, in addition to possessing a compelling narrative arc, films about a musician need to "somehow capture the excitement of an artist." Given the host of "bad concert films" out there, he said, this is not always easy to do.
It also (in most cases) takes a cooperative subject. Jett agreed to do the film, but it took a while for her to get accustomed to having a crew around, Braun said. It was by no means a calculated, attention-driven move on her part to get involved with the project, he added.
"She doesn't like to sing her own praises," Braun said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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