Joan Jett, the queen of badass rockers, was emotional when she took the stage at the Sundance Film Festival after the world premiere of the documentary “Bad Reputation.” When a female audience member asked her what her favorite career high is: “This would be one of ’em,” said the leather-clad Jett while ducking her head and wiping away a tear.
“Bad Reputation” traces the 59-year-old Jett’s trailblazing path as one of the first, and hardest-rocking, women in a notoriously sexist industry. One commentator said back in the day, Mick Jagger could and did, come out on stage riding a giant inflatable phallus. Just try sending Jett out on similar female genitalia and the mostly-male music critics would have been running for the exits.
“Growing up in the ’70s, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal for a woman to play rock ’n’ roll,” says Jett in the film. That wasn’t the case however, her first band, the teenaged Runaways, was cursed at, spit on and had bottles and trash thrown at them. Jett says she would go backstage and have a cathartic cry. She kept on going and found kindred outsider spirits in the world of punk, once lending Sid Vicious her favorite belt, an accessory which ended up in one of the most iconic photos of the Sex Pistols bassist and his girlfriend.
Jett finally landed a major hit in 1981 with her cover of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll.” More than a dozen record labels rejected the demo of it after she sent it to them. How hard they must have been kicking themselves as the foot-stomping anthem remained on the Billboard charts for months.
Director Kevin Kerslake (“As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM”) has heard from a roster of musicians who have weighed in on Jett’s impact on rock through the decades. From Iggy Pop to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to Kathleen Hanna, whose band Bikini Kill drew inspiration, and eventually production assistance, from Jett. “That voice! Those pronouns!” Hanna gushes, recalling her first time hearing Jett’s cover of “Crimson and Clover,” which dared to keep the object of the Tommy James & the Shondells love song a “her.”
The film’s most unexpected charm features the 40-year friendship between Jett and Kenny Laguna, her longtime producer and collaborator. They banter and bicker like an old married couple, one where the husband gladly helps his wife plaster electrical tape over the rip in the crotch of her skintight leather pants.
Jett noted the particular strangeness of seeing her life played out on the big screen. She told the audience she never set out to become an activist, but as the film shows, she’s been an advocate for animal rights, women’s safety (following the rape and murder of The Gits lead singer Mia Zapata in 1993) and for making sure the next generation of female rockers had more support than she did. This documentary reveals the extent of her warmheartedness, and Jett’s bad reputation may finally be a thing of the past.
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