When someone is asked to name some of the most influential female musicians over the past fifty years, Joan Jett’s name unfortunately might not always come up. Filmmaker Kevin Kerslake is intent on changing people’s minds. His documentary film Bad Reputation tries to accomplish just that, solidifying Jett as not only a feminist musical pioneer- but a musical pioneer in general.
Kerslake’s film takes the typical chronological-style approach in establishing Joan Jett, the famed female rock star known for such hits as the film’s namesake and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. After acquiring her first guitar at age thirteen, her drive to make music never ceased. Despite her young age, she would frequent several notorious L.A. clubs and venues to become more acquainted with the city’s famous music scene. Determined to show that a band that boasted itself with the anti-establishment spirit was not inclusive to men, she soon formed the all-female group, The Runaways. Their no-nonsense approach and charismatic lead singer Cherie Curie made them a hit in the club scene, but they struggled to find the same success commercially.
Despite being well-received in Japan thanks to their hit “Cherry Bomb,” The Runaways eventually disbanded. Ever persistent, Jett refused to go down with them. Receiving help from producer and life-long friend Kenny Leguna, Jett reinvented herself. Without compromising her signature rebellious attitude, she released a slew of hits that fit MTV’s consumer-friendly mainstream mold. She would soon become a household name and a prominent figure within the punk scene for years to come.
Bad Reputation is certainly intent on giving Jett the credit she definitely deserves. But one has to wonder whether Jett herself has received this credit beforehand. Her founding of The Runaways is without a doubt an important part in rock history, giving millions of young women the inspiration to pursue their own musical careers. Plus, unbeknownst to many, Jett’s production work on many albums throughout the 80s and 90s resulted in some of the most influential underground music of the time. Kerslake’s film does an excellent job of portraying Jett’s good- or great– reputation, but lacks in portraying the bad.
Like many documentaries before it, Kerslake tells his story through talking head-style interviews from established musicians as well as friends and family, intercut with concert footage from over the years. Key conflicting parts are often left out, however, such as the Runaways’ manager Kim Fowley’s alleged rape accusation from other members of the band. It also seems to shy away from other controversial topics such as Jett’s sexuality, though due to her immense involvement in the film, it may have been her choice to leave it out.
As such, a lack of nuance in exploring Jett’s life is Bad Reputation’s greatest weakness. Though immensely enjoyable, the documentary operates as nothing more than an hour and thirty minutes of Joan Jett praise, both from the filmmaker and from the artist’s numerous peers. If Kerslake had dug a little deeper and offered the viewer a more unflinching look at the musician’s addictions, relationship troubles, and other hardships, it would have proved to be a better, more personal portrait. But, again, perhaps Jett chose not to let herself be represented that way.
The film’s greatest strength is, of course, the praise for Joan Jett. Along with praising her contributions to rock and roll’s history, the documentary offers interesting insights into her aforementioned production work and charitable ventures. Praise from peers and fans such as Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, and Iggy Pop further cement her status as a rock queen.
Director Kevin Kerslake’s intentions were good, perhaps great, in making this film, but a deeper dive into what makes Joan Jett, Joan Jett would have benefited greatly. However, if you prefer your rock documentaries to be works of adoration toward their subject (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Bad Reputation.