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.