Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation attempts to reveal the visionary mind underneath Joan Jett’s black shag. Like most documentaries about artists, Kerslake assembles archival clips and exclusive interviews into a linear timeline. But what’s unexpected is that much of Jett’s story, here, gets told by her producer and best friend Kenny Laguna, whose relationship with the rock priestess illuminates some of the dark spots in her history. Too bad, then, that even Laguna’s input doesn’t get to the heart of Jett’s essence, as Bad Reputation comes off more as a fanboy’s declaration of reverence to the queen rather than an interrogation of one of the most iconic women in music.
I’m not asking for Jett (née Larkin) to get grilled or for deeper, darker secrets to be exposed, just for interview questions with more depth. And I’m curious how much say Jett herself had in the final cut. For instance, her Runaways bandmate Cherie Currie shows up for an interview, which might have offered a counterpoint to Jett’s memories of that epochal teen rock group’s beginnings. The two now have a cordial, warm relationship, but certainly present different accounts of their now-deceased manager and producer Kim Fowley and how it all went sour. (The Runaways’ Jackie Fuchs has alleged that Fowley raped her, a charge her bandmates have not all corroborated.) I found myself simultaneously pleased that Kerslake didn’t devolve that section of interviews into some kind of catfight, like what the clickbait press might enjoy, but also disappointed by the shallowness of what’s onscreen and curious about just how much Jett is comfortable revealing, all these years later, about that blazingly short period of her teenage years. Still, Kerslake could at least have asked: “How do you feel about Kim Fowley now, and what negative or positive things did you learn from him?”
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But that’s a larger issue with documentaries made by people who admire their subjects too dearly. They’re so often so happy to gush over their heroes in these kinds of films that they forego the rigorous questioning that might elicit thoughtful or enlightening responses. Journalists are much better at that, but journalists don’t get the access given to an insider/fan like Kerslake, a director of music videos and documentaries.
Still, Kerslake does nice work when branching out into Jett’s non-Runaways, non-Blackhearts career, displaying the gasping “Did you know…” energy of a nerdy kid reading baseball card stats to his buddies. In this case — like when he reveals the humble, out-of-the-trunk origins of Blackheart Records — he’s preaching from the punk gospel, reminding people that Jett may have made a name for herself in commercially viable pop anthems, but she was still the same San Fernando Valley punk she always was.
Bad Reputation argues that Jett was under-the-radar fostering new generations of female rockers into success for decades. D.C. hardcore icon Ian Mackaye shows up for an interview — as he is wont to do — and recounts the time she came to one of his shows and took home a Bikini Kill demo; Jett adored its crude expressions of unadulterated feminism. Kathleen Hanna then tells her side of the story: Jett called her at home to ask if she could produce the Bikini Kill album. Hanna says that she nearly passed out when she realized it wasn’t a prank, a touching reminder of the time before Hanna’s own icon status. Having been a short-banged riot grrrl myself, I’d long known about Jett’s patronage of Bikini Kill but was unaware that she’d been the driving force behind Los Angeles rockers The Germs’ only and much-adored studio album, (GI). When I informed a music-nerd friend about Jett’s Germs connection, I was met with a sincere: “Her? Really?”
Those who’ve been lucky enough to see Joan Jett & the Blackhearts on the band’s endless tours can attest that Jett has been very busy. (I caught them in 2003 at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.) The documentary suggests that this is because Jett is one of many artists who was screwed in their early days and forced to tour endlessly to make ends meet. But there’s also a joy and energy in the performances we’re shown, as though Jett’s rock-hard abs are powered by crowd applause. And throughout all the high and the dry times, Laguna has been by Jett’s side — from their joint decision to sell Blackhearts albums out of the trunk of a car to the (necessary) formation of their own Blackheart Records to release the album, and now to when Jett simply needs a sounding board or a cigarette lit. On camera, the two bicker like an old couple, but this is a portrait of a platonic relationship that has withstood too many tours to Podunk towns to even count. While I generally like Laguna’s inclusion in the documentary, I wonder where all the rock docs on male artists that give equal time to the women behind the men are. Because the women are certainly there.