‘Bad Reputation’ Rocks Hard While Telling the Trailblazing Story of Joan Jett

Joan Jett helped kick the door open for women in rock n’ roll with a Punk spirit that still casts a dangerous and alluring aura. Such a personality deserves a documentary, or several of them. Jett’s early years were already told quite well in dramatic form in the movie “The Runaways,” where Kristen Stewart played the icon in all her glory. The new documentary “Bad Reputation” gives us the real Joan Jett, recounting her origins and the hard road to respect women rockers have had to endure. Much of Jett’s importance, aside from the great music, centers on how she has always posed the most interesting questions regarding gender and pop culture.

Jett begins by remembering her days as a teen in 1970s Los Angeles as the glam and punk movements started gaining prominence. Legends like David Bowie and Iggy Pop were dropping in, performing and partying hard. All it took were her parents giving her a guitar for Christmas for Jett to want to be a part of the musical action. Not even 18 and she was already a member of The Runaways, an all girl band that included Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Micki Steele and Lita Ford. They were represented by notorious producer Kim Fowley, who knew all the big acts and had a larger than life reputation. In the U.S. the band attracted both admiration and scorn for its daring, provocative presentation of female rockers just as hard and dirty as the men. Once the band fell apart Jett found herself drifting, losing herself in binge drinking and partying until producer Kenny Laguna rediscovered her while working on a soundtrack. Since then the two have been a powerhouse pair, producing hits that have made Jett a rock pioneer, giving us classic jams while proving gender is an imaginary divide when it comes to producing lasting, meaningful art.

“Bad Reputation” is a refreshing re-introduction to Jett’s story and catalogue. The songs have not aged at all and early hits like “Cherry Bomb” with The Runaways and her own solo cuts like “Crimson and Clover,” “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” have a scorching edge. But the music takes on a greater meaning when Jett shares the trials endured by the Runaways in their early days. Today Jett’s career, especially with her own band the Blackhearts, is highly respected and her stage persona, clad in dark leather, legendary, but some viewers will be astounded to hear her share about getting batteries and trash thrown at her by misogynist audiences. The idea of women dressing as they liked and taking the stage with sexual energy was seen as threatening by a rock culture basking in masculinity (even with the rise of glam). Even Kenny Laguna remembers being astonished by the reaction, having been raised by bohemian, feminist parents. Other artists opine on how a song like “Crimson and Clover” was incredibly risqué for essentially expressing the love of one woman for another with an intimate atmosphere. The defining theme of “Bad Reputation” is precisely Jett’s insistence on rebellion through individuality. She has always played by her own rules, to the point of never having married or had children, because as she puts it, “music is my mate.”

The only real flaw in this otherwise engrossing documentary is that director Kevin Kerslake becomes so enamored with the Joan Jett persona that he never truly digs deep into the woman herself. The Punk rock history on display is fascinating, complete with commentary by Green Day’s Billie Joel Armstrong, Blondie’s Debbie Harry and bands Jett has produced or mentored like Flea. They discuss everything from her vocal range to the role of feminism in rock, but what’s missing is more of an insight into what makes Jett tick. She rarely discusses herself, the music or the history of any of the great songs we see performed. The only song that gets some adequate attention is her signature hit, “I Love Rock N’ Roll.” By the end, when we see her roaring performance with Nirvana in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, the documentary has simply become more of a tribute than a biography. Great artists like Kurt Cobain and Whitney Houston have recently been the subjects of visceral, penetrating documentaries like “Montage of Heck” and “Whitney,” Jett deserves no less. A few of the cameo interviews, like the artist Shepard Fairey and The Who’s Pete Townshend feel like slight throwaways, offering a quick comment and then never reappearing. More interesting is Michael J. Fox, who starred with Jett in Paul Schrader’s “Light of Day.” A rock goddess in talent and looks, Jett had an undeniable, natural presence on screen. The documentary’s most intimate moments deal with Jett’s relationship with her longtime producer Laguna. The two have developed a platonic bond that cuts deeper than any romantic relationship. We see them quarrel and make up like siblings. Miley Cyrus even appears with some surprisingly wise words about the real bonds of a partnership based on genuine friendship.

Make no mistake, “Bad Reputation” can be an exhilarating experience as a slice of rock n’ roll history. At 60 Jett looks as alive and driven as when she was a teen in the Runaways. The concert and TV footage, mixed with archive photos, create the portrait of an artist and performer born a rebel. The way Jett snarls into a microphone or plays a riff has a pure Punk purity, sometimes tempered by a dash of pop, but never stale. As a general introduction to the legend this is a great start. Yet, such a personality deserves just a little more as well.

Bad Reputation” opens Sept. 28 in select theaters.