An unexpected gem on Hulu is a story that most rock ‘n’ roll fans probably think they know well. That story is that of Joan Jett. Known for her brooding looks and aggressive guitar-playing, Jett looked to be the poster girl of rebellion. “Bad Reputation” takes its name from one of Jett’s singles, and manages to present a story of the performer that is less well-known.
The film begins with Jett narrating a story of how she got her first guitar. The narrative leads to Jett forming The Runaways, and ultimately, Jett going solo and looking for “three good men.”
Jett’s story is one where the women’s movement meets the politics of radio stations only playing one female artist per hour. In addition, “Bad Reputation” reminds audiences of Jett’s (reportedly) being punk before other people in Los Angeles. Her socializing with the likes of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spurgen, not to mention Chrissie Hyde and so many others. The film is filled with insights on America’s punk and rock scenes of the 1970s and 1980s by members of Bikini Kill, Fugazi, Social Distortion, The Runaways, the Blackhearts, Green Day, The Who, etc.
Interestingly, it was a man who made a great deal of money writing bubble gum pop songs as a teenager who became intrigued with Jett as a solo artist and became integral to her development as a solo artist.
Joan Jett and the music video era
After struggling to get record companies’ attention as the leader of a band with men, Jett became a darling of the new music video network, Mtv. “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” which Jett had heard done by the Sex Pistols, became her first single. The video depicts Jett in iconic makeup, haircut and leather jackets and jumpsuit. All of a sudden, “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” was No. 1 on Billboard charts, besting a host of male artists.
Audiences of a certain age who remember what the early 1980s looked like in terms of mullets and leather jackets, might be able to identify Jett as one of the early proponents of the style. The look was not limited to straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll or punk. It showed up in glam metal, too.
Watching the details of Jett’s life, viewers can understand that the performer’s “story” is not just the story of one person, but of the various social and musical style forces that come to bear on any one band or era. In seeing the complexities inherent in Jett, audiences are reminded that popular music is an art – – an art created by people with challenges, which makes their triumphs even more delightful.
Joan Jett in the 1990s and beyond
Jett’s work with the band Bikini Kill might be a facet that some people might have overlooked. The story of how she reached out to Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill is one of the more interesting narratives in a film full of such stories.
One little-known story involves the tragedy of The Gits. The Gits were a Seattle band, poised for stardom like so many Seattle bands, until their lead singer, Mia was found strangled, beaten and raped. Jett galvanized Hannah and others by singing The Gits’ songs, and a movement grew out of making sure that women could walk home alone safely. That segment alone is worth a spin-off documentary.
Jett’s work with Miley Cyrus might come as a surprise to some viewers. Her induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2013, keeps the performer relevant well into the 21st century.
“Bad Reputation” is a film full of surprises. Despite its refusal to shy away from the difficult moments of the performer’s life, the film is mostly a triumph, a celebration of a long career with