“Bad Reputation” Review: Joan Jett’s Sexuality is Everywhere in Her New Documentary

Within a week of moving to New York City in 2014, I’d spotted my first famous person in the concrete wilderness. A petite woman with a heavily-razored bob, colored as black as her leather jacket, walked past me in a hotel lobby, accompanied by a man a few years her senior. The woman was Joan Jett. A few years later, it dawned on me that the man was Kenny Laguna, the unlikely bubblegum pop-turned-punk producer who helped her go solo in the late 1970s. My Manhattan celebrity sightings have been all downhill from there. How do you top Joan Jett? According to Kevin Kerslake’s new documentary Bad Reputation, you don’t; the most you can do is listen up and take notes.

Bad Reputation follows Jett’s life from her first guitar circa 1971 to her belated-as-all-hell induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. As a teen inspired by the likes of David Bowie and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, Jett’s passion led her to pursue a band of her own with the gifted young drummer Sandy West. The smart but sketchy manager Kim Fowley steered the project and the group quickly swelled to tour van capacity with six members: Joan, Sandy, Mickie, Lita, Cherie, and Jackie. The Runaways became the first true girl band of the 1970s, touring internationally, making a dent in the charts, flustering the men who gatekept their industry. By the time the band broke up in 1979, the girls had fame, but no dough to show for it. Victory Tischler-Blue’s 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways — available to view on YouTube (for now) — gives a great rundown of the Runaways’ sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll heyday and the straight-up shitshow that followed.

Unlike several of her bandmates, Jett’s love of music was enough, inevitably shaking her from a jaded alcohol spiral. With Laguna’s help, she was able to deliver the chart-topping solo album Bad Reputation and figure out how to eke out an autonomous career without being sucked dry by major record labels. With Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, they found a sustainable balance that’s lasted countless hits and nearly four decades. Laguna and Jett grew to be thick-as-thieves. Their bond is underscored in Bad Reputation when he helps Jett duct tape the crotch of her latex pants closed right before a gig.

One of the best things about Bad Reputation is its impressive generational wingspan. There are a number of documentaries out there that uplift their subject at the expense of anyone and everyone who follows, as though cultural impact occurs in a vacuum. This isn’t one of ’em. Jett’s contemporaries like Debbie Harry speak about how groundbreaking her artistry was and continues to be, as do musicians from subsequent generations. Olympia’s golden girl Kathleen Hanna recalls the time Jett randomly phoned her after meeting Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox at a Fugazi concert. Miley Cyrus and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace, who collaborated on a reprise of Joan Jett & The Blackheart’s “Androgynous,” are just as hyped to talk about the rocker’s influence.

Kristen Stewart, who played Jett in Floria Sigismondi’s intricate Runaways biopic in 2010, remembers Jett helping her get in character:

“In a rehearsal before we actually shot [the song] ‘Cherry Bomb.’ I couldn’t commit to it. I just felt like I was traipsing on something. I’m not good at rehearsal. So she was like, ‘What are you doing, man? C’mon. You know this. You’ve got this.’ And I was like, ‘I know, I know, I know, don’t worry.’ And she was like, ‘COME ON! Pussy to the fucking wood!’ It was funny, because rock ‘n roll’s supposed to be messy and ‘fuck it, nothing matters’ but it’s truly the opposite of that for her. She has a diligent, almost compulsive dedication to it. And that was, KRISTEN! Pussy to the wood.’”

Bad Reputation even allows the villain her say in the form of Nikki Haley, who describes herself as a “big Joan Jett fan.” The U.N. Ambassador quaintly recounts the time she quoted the singer during a speech: Be yourself. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

As the doc insists, Jett’s success, feminist icon status, and — contrary to those legendary lyrics — great reputation can be chalked up to the pre-punk, “anything goes” veneer that covers her white-knuckled willpower. Simply, she made it because she kept showing up, even when it probably would’ve been healthier to stay the hell in bed.

Jett’s sexuality isn’t relegated to its own very special narrative segment, and that’s because it’s everywhere — as it should be for a rock star, and as it should be for all of us. Jett’s brand of queer is as much about Elvis being a pretty boy with swishy hips as it is Miley Cyrus famously trying to bed her, Kristen Stewart portraying her, lyrics that suggest anything but cisheteronormativity. Jett’s anti-war, pro-animal, pro-woman politics follow suit, less a label than they are actions: performing for troops in the Middle East and Bosnia, openly calling for an end to the seal slaughter while continuing to wear her decades-old leather, and fundraising women’s self-defense classes after the singer Mia Zapata’s horrifying murder. Bad Reputation reminds us that people with a knack for keeping their cool during trying times aren’t apathetic. Sometimes, they’re exactly what we — and our headphones — need.

Bad Reputation premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year and will be distributed through BMG later in 2018.

Sarah Fonseca’s essays, book reviews, and film writing have appeared in Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, Posture Magazine, and them. Catch her obsessing over Eartha Kitt at sarahfonseca.com.

sarah has written 58 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Between Joan Jett and Ellen Degeneres, it seems very trendy for white celesbians to condemn the seal hunt. They never acknowledge the impact their activism has on Inuit communities who have hunted seals since before colonization, continue to depend on them for sustenance, and have a stake in sustaining their populations. Certainly, the seal hunt ought to be regulated, but the demand for a total ban by white Americans who have little understanding of Inuit culture is misguided at best. I cringe whenever I see white celesbians get on board with this. Those who haven’t heard of it should check out the film Angry Inuk, which explains these issues better than I can here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/angry_inuk/

  2. I have a Joan Jett story! One time, I saw her break up a fight at the Mid California State Fair. Picture it-early 2000s, middle of California. She was performing for a pretty rowdy crowd of drunk rural cowboys. It was weird. Suddenly, two dudes start brawling and everyone starts screaming that one of them has a knife or something. As security is trying to get through to the guys, and everyone is freaking out, Joan Jett calmly talks them down, letting them know everything is cool and we’re all here to have a good time, asking what song they want to hear. Then she plays the request as the two guys go willingly with security. Aside from the almost knife fight or whatever, it was perfection. She was so calm and clear-headed, and whenever I’m faced with some intense conflict that freaks me out, I try to remember how Joan Jett handled it.

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