Because she’s frank about her professional work but also carefully protective of her private life, Joan Jett makes a risky subject for a probing documentary, and Bad Reputation often struggles to extract deeper thoughts from its subject about her wild career as a pioneering rock feminist. Hardened by a lifetime of gigging for audiences great and small and long ago inured to the sexism that dogged much of her career, Jett approaches her life with a no-bullshit attitude, speaking casually about the highs and lows of her career.
The film matches her laconicism, sprinting through her career highlights as if summarizing them. Director Kevin Kerslake often turns to talking-head interviews with other musicians to explain Jett in greater detail. Only a few subjects, like Iggy Pop and Runaways bandmate Cherie Currie, are actually Jett’s peers, with most interviewees being musicians inspired by Jett, like Kathleen Hanna and Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. Thus we hear people attempt to imagine Jett’s highs and lows rather than offer firsthand accounts, turning this into more of a fan testimonial than an intimate portrait.
Kerslake hits a rich vein of material by shifting focus momentarily to Jett’s longtime producer, Kenny Laguna. Like Runaways manager Kim Fowley, Laguna was known for novelty hits before he met Jett, but where Fowley’s manipulative, predatory behavior cast a pall over the Runaways, Laguna comes across as a man deeply invested in Jett’s success from the moment he emptied his savings to finance her first solo album when no record label would. Jett and Laguna have the chemistry of an old married couple, and the film livens up when showing scenes of their playful teasing. Unfortunately, Kerslake continues to rely on talking heads to describe this relationship, so that rather than simply watch the pair interact with each other we must hear about how strong their bond is from the likes of Miley Cyrus.
The revealing insights into Jett and Laguna’s relationship prefigures a final act that offers an even more rewarding exploration of Jett’s tireless promotion of other artists, from producing the Germs’s (GI) to giving Bikini Kill their big break after acquiring a demo from Fugazi. Interviewees who enjoyed Jett’s support and collaboration light up when talking about how she helped them out, with artists like Hanna still getting slightly flustered at the idea that she would listen to them at all, much less advance their careers. Kerslake paints a portrait of an artist forever engaged with new artists on the scene, and Bad Reputation includes an extended look at Jett happily going on the 2006 Warped Tour and working younger and evidently starstruck crowds.
The most meaningful story that Bad Reputation uncovers involves the 1993 rape and murder of Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata. Despite having no connection to the group, Jett was so moved by the unsolved murder that she not only reached out to the surviving bandmates but briefly joined their group to record and tour to raise money for an investigation. The film gives a basic image of Jett as a consummate badass with a heart of gold, but nothing illustrates this like an archival clip where Jett explains why she cares so much about Zapata’s case. For one brief second, Jett’s façade of brash cool breaks and she lets out a sob, only to immediately choke it back and resume talking about her commitment to the investigation with steely resolve.