Oddly, it seems Joan Jett has quite a good reputation. The inspiring documentary Bad Reputation, named after her early 1980s hit, is a paean to the veteran rocker. She gets praise from Iggy Pop and Blondie’s Deborah Harry; we learn of her good influence on artists as diverse as Miley Cyrus, Darby Crash, Laura Jane Grace and actor Michael J. Fox.
We note her days as a hard-charging musician, as a stand-up person who traveled to Iraq and Bosnia to entertain the troops, and her work for animal rights. Jett’s excessive drinking in the rough times after her first band, the Runaways, broke up is about the only character deficit admitted to here.
Gifted with a Silvertone guitar by her parents one Christmas, the smoldering Jett parlayed that into L.A.’s glam rock scene, mostly at a small L.A. disco run in the mid 1970s by Mountain View–bred Rodney Bingenheimer. Kim Fowley—who has a mixed reputation, either as pervy mastermind or astute, if eccentric, music producer—pre-fabbed the underaged band the Runaways during a time of ’70s gender blur.
“Guys are turning into fags so the girls are turning into John Wayne,” Fowley says in the film. When the Runaways began, the macha Jett wasn’t even the lead singer. The feedback changed as their market widened. As Jett puts it, “It went from ‘cute and sweet’ to ‘slut and whore.'”
Director Kevin Kerslake’s efforts to underscore Jett as a groundbreaker means downplaying the rock chops of some of her contemporaries, such as Joni Mitchell (she wasn’t all just “Big Yellow Taxi”). While the testimonials for Jett abound, particularly from Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, we don’t get very deep into her inner life.
It’s a warm film, though. For decades, Jett’s back has been guarded by Kenny Laguna, a vet of the bubblegum music craze of the late 1960s, and his wife and daughter. Kenny’s main lesson on songwriting comes from Casablanca records founder Neil Bogart: “Don’t bore us, get right to the chorus.”
It’s pleasant to see the easiness between Laguna and Jett, sharing a spliff, or grousing together about stage costumes as Jett takes some electrical tape to a black spandex outfit in danger of a seam-split. And the documentary is full of savory odds and ends, including the sight of Jett absolutely rocking “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the story of how 23 record companies turned down Jett’s demo. They didn’t get “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Perhaps it was too deep?
‘Bad Reputation’ opens Wednesday, Sept. 26, at select North Bay theaters for a special screening.