Unless you’re a child of the 80s, it’s quite conceivable that you’ve never even heard the name Joan Jett. Out of the mainstream for thirty years, Jett’s name has only come up in the past decade in punk rock circles (she’s a well-known producer) and because of her 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But those in the know, which is basically anyone in the rock music business, know Joan, respect Joan, and know exactly how much she’s meant over the past four decades.
If only Kevin Kerslake’s new documentary Bad Reputation did a better job of giving the woman her due.
Beginning with the gifting of the famous thirteenth birthday guitar, the film traces Jett’s roots—from the seedy LA club scene through the rise and fall of The Runaways to her time with the Blackhearts and beyond.
Feeling more like a watered down episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, Bad Reputation spends plenty of time on people gushing about Jett’s contributions (and rightly so), but if you’re hoping for any serious amount of context or time spent on the music itself, there’s no way to feel anything but short-changed.
Writer and editor Joel Marcus clearly has appropriate reverence for the subject matter, and he and Kerslake did an admirable job digging up archival photos and video from all phases of Jett’s career, but it’s hard to avoid an incredulous “that’s it?” as the final credits begin to roll. It’s almost as though one of the most bad-ass, hard-edged women in music history had no personal life, no backstory, and no downtime when she wasn’t up on stage shredding her guitar. Surely there were some demons, some tragedy, some—heck—even marginal conflicts that made her what she was? If so, you won’t find out very much about any of it here.
Even the present-day interviews with Jett feel like all-too-scripted exercises in either spin control or sanitization. Dear lord, this woman practically paved the way for the Riot Grrrl movement. What gives?
As for the music—yes, the requisite jukebox hits are here, but the deeper cuts are all but ignored, and there’s never a hint of what went in to writing these songs. We listen as Miley Cyrus gushes about the gender-fluidity of Jett singing “Crimson and Clover”, but it’s as if the song just materialized out of the clear, blue sky.
So many opportunities for Jett to get the documentary she so richly deserves are squandered along the way, leaving Bad Reputation feeling like a 30,000-foot retrospective that Jett herself would smash with her snarling guitar. Casual fans may well love it for the not-too-messy approach it takes to telling the world about the wild woman who sang “I Love Rock and Roll” once upon a time, but music die-hards may well consider it an opportunity (with apologies to The Runaways) wasted.