It all started with a $30 guitar from Sears that her parents got her one Christmas. Now, Joan Jett is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s an idol to an untold number of women in music, along with guitar players and songwriters of all genders. She is an icon.
The documentary Bad Reputation, out today, looks back on the career and evolution of Jett, who started as a late-’70s teenager in the seminal L.A. glitter rock all-girl band The Runaways, a solo career as one of the most notable women in rock history with hits “I Love Rock N’ Roll” (a cover song, originally recorded by the Sex Pistols) and “Bad Reputation,” and became a fierce advocate for women, the LGBTQ community, and everyone who wanted to do it themselves after being turned down. She’s one of Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time and Gibson guitars created a signature Melody Maker line modeled after her guitar.
“I went to take a [guitar] lesson, and the guy said: ‘Girls don’t play rock and roll,’” Jett says in the film’s opening moments. It stands as a recurring theme in her career. It was the pushback that The Runaways got from radio. It was how the record labels justified not signing her as a solo artist — so she, along with her longtime producer and manager Kenny Laguna, started her own label, Blackheart Records. It was the unspoken reason she wasn’t inducted into the Rock Hall until 2015 (she was first eligible in 2006, 25 years after her debut solo album was released), despite being one of the most visible and legendary women in rock music.
The Runaways also loom large in the doc, with Jett getting her chance again, following her involvement in their 2010 biopic as an executive producer, to tell her side of the story of how the band came together and fell apart. It is a distinctly different experience from that of singer Cherie Currie, who gives an interview but whose stories of abuse at the hands of the group’s Svengali, Kim Fowley, are omitted. It’s jolting to watch the old performance from the band that’s included in this doc, rife with shots lingering on Currie’s crotch as she dances in a corset. However, that choice hammers home what the viewer hears in voice overs from Jett and others: that no one took the band seriously and they were told that women couldn’t perform rock music, just be the objectified muse of men. “Girls being able to play rock and roll would be so cool and sexy because it had never been done. I thought everybody would love it,” Jett says. “Once they realized it was serious, that we planned to make an album, go on tour, and do everything that male bands were doing, the tables turned. It went from [being called] ‘cute and sweet’ to ‘slut, whore, cunt.’”
Jett later recounts her own voluntary exit from the band, when producer John Elka started pushing the group towards a heavier, more metal sound. From there Jett started her solo career.
This doc is an opportunity to explore the seminal moments in music over the last four decades in which Jett has played a role but found herself written out of. It details her work producing The Germs, how starting Blackheart Records was lock step with the much more famous Dischord Records and DIY punk rock scene that was heavily male-dominated, and her involvement in the Riot Grrl scene along with how she spearheaded the movement to find the killer of Mia Zapata, singer of the Gits. Zapata was the front woman in the Seattle band who were on the rise in the midst of the grunge-heavy scene and inspired many of the most famous bands from the Riot Grrl movement; her shocking rape and murder took a decade to prosecute.
Bad Reputation cements Jett’s place in rock history as a fighter against sexism and the long-held ideas of what kinds of music women could play, and how they could look. It’s distressing to know that the misogyny that Jett was fighting remains prevalent: Jett, though, still has a lot of fight in her, and Bad Reputation ends with her stated intent to continue supporting women — not just opening doors for them but knocking down “the whole damn wall."