The Joan Jett documentary “Bad Reputation” opens with a voiceover, where Jett remembers walking into her first guitar lesson, with an electric guitar she got from her parents for Christmas in the early 1970s. The teacher took a look at her and said, “Girls don’t play rock ‘n’ roll.”
Later in the film, a magazine headline flashes past in a montage from Jett’s '80s heyday that reads: “Selling well is the best revenge.”
The film is being shown at the Top Hat as the last of Big Sky Film Series’ 2018 documentary showings, which included wide-ranging releases like “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” about Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and “For the Birds,” about a woman who owns 200 birds.
Michael Workman, who’s the senior programmer for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, said they’ve stepped up their film screenings outside of the February festival this year to try and maintain a year-round connection with the community.
“We’re not just a film festival,” Workman said. “It’s bigger than a lot of people realize.”
The one-off screenings are mainly movies that may not usually come to Missoula, Workman said, and the rock docs at the Top Hat do especially well.
“A lot of people on staff like seeing films at the Top Hat. Get some beer and some food,” Workman said. “We like them and people come to them.”
It can be a race to get films before they’re up on streaming services, Workman said, and the Big Sky Film Series tries to augment most showings with filmmaker Q&A’s or panels of experts.
Outside of that, Workman said they just try and bring the best films they can to Missoula, and he hoped “Bad Reputation,” which is the last screening before the 2019 film festival, would resonate.
The film is well-timed and well-placed. Over the summers the Top Hat hosts the ZACC rock camps finale (which were started to get young girls into playing rock music) and takes aim at the wider rock music industry, which continues its one-step-forward two-steps-back reckoning with sexism and its ongoing effects on bands who can't play at certain venues or the fallout of a "joke" guitar pedal.
“Bad Reputation” gets straight to it, opening the film with Jett and other L.A. acolytes describing the depraved music scene that a young (14-year-old!) Jett gets into after learning guitar, with Quaaludes flowing freely, makeup, glitter and platform shoes the look of the moment, and no inhibitions.
This is the world in which Jett and friend/manager Kim Fowley try to start a band, with Fowley putting out the call for “loud, obnoxious, rebellious” girls, finding the Runaways lineup with Sandy West, Cherrie Curie, Lita Ford and Jackie Fox.
The documentary pretty deftly weaves new interviews together with old audio and TV interviews to create a full picture of each step of Jett’s career, though some frequent commenters, like Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong, show up a little too frequently compared to new-school feminist rockers like Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.
(Armstrong does have one quote, about seeing Jett on TV and thinking “I want to be the male version of THAT,” that’s pretty good. But you know, no one needs this much Billie Joe in 2018.)
Like all great documentaries, it highlights the past in a way that makes our age feel at once very progressive and frustratingly stagnant. Like the difference between what it took to be a DIY record label in 1980 (when Jett and her manager sold records out of the trunk of his ’76 Cadillac bought with his kids’ college fund) versus the ease of creating a Soundcloud or the eye-opening violent sexism Jett and her Runaways bandmates faced that is eerily echoed by Cherry Glazerr’s experiences touring rock venues in 2018.
Jett recalled then-manager Fowley attending the Runaways’ tour rehearsals to yell insults and throw things at them while they played to prepare the teenagers for their performances.
She shrugs it off as “boot camp,” but later in the film bemoans the idea that no one in the music world had anything better to do than harp on these girls for wanting to play rock 'n' roll and that, to some degree, it worked to break up the band.
The film moves briskly through the Runaways days to the Blackhearts’ appearances on MTV and beyond, into the later stages of Jett’s career, not hiding the fact this movie is about her alone, with only passing touches on others outside of her immediate circle.
“It’s a really fun and interesting look at the beginnings of that scene,” Workman said. “It’s a really strong portrait of her.”