Joan Jett on her Bad Reputation doc and the challenges women in rock face today: 'It's the same old bulls---'
Despite its title, you won’t hear an unkind word about Joan Jett in the new documentary Bad Reputation (out Sept. 28). Dozens of friends and musicians, including Dave Grohl, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Pop, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, speak with nothing but love and admiration for the Queen of Rock and Roll.
The film chronicles Jett’s entire career, from her time with the Runaways to forming her group the Blackhearts to the unnecessary pushback she’s faced as a female rocker. “You need women at high levels to change the decision-making process,” she tells EW, about what it will take to make things different for women in the music industry. “It’s not going to make everything better, but it’s a start.”
Ahead, Jett chats about her movie, the #MeToo movement, and how Robert Plant’s advice once landed her in jail.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have a lot of folks singing your praises in this film. Was any of that surprising to hear?
JOAN JETT: It’s all surprising and surreal. I’ve got such great friends and I’ve had great experiences. It kind of wraps up my career and I feel good about the whole thing. I’ve only seen [the film] once — I’m not sure if I’ve even seen the final edit — and I want it to be that way. It’s not easy to watch yourself over and over again.
Watching the archive footage, were there any parts that brought you back to a moment in your career or performance you’d forgotten about?
Yeah, I went completely on that journey again of being elated in the Runaways, creating this band I loved so much and was my baby, and then the depression when we broke up. Then to meet Kenny [Laguna, her manager, producer, business partner, and best friend] and have a chance to create [the Blackhearts] and the amount of resistance that we got. Now I had somebody else to fight with and share this craziness I was experiencing, about how “girls can’t play rock and roll.” It was insane.
The movie takes on the bigger topic of women in rock. Has the current #MeToo movement and the women’s marches brought back any visceral feelings, seeing what these women are doing today that you were doing decades ago?
Well, the experience that these women have gone through, it’s not something that’s foreign to me. Most women and girls out there unfortunately experienced various degrees of this. It’s not unique. They speak for a lot more women, not just the women involved in the movement. A lot of us that may not have tweeted something, [or] may not be officially involved yet have gone through those same things.
In terms of the “women in rock” conversation, what do you see that’s changed in the industry?
It’s all the same old bulls— [laughs]. Not much has changed. I tell ya, since I started, it’s a lot more lip service and the appearance of equaling out, but there aren’t necessarily more women in positions of power, which is what you’re going to need to change things on a more drastic and dramatic level. You need women in positions of power at the TV, movie, and record studios, the big Dow and Fortune 500 companies, all through the whole ball of wax.
For a minute in the ‘90s, there were a few all-girl bands that were getting a lot of radio play and print notice and you thought, Maybe things are gonna change, maybe women are going to break out now. But it sort of died out. The girls are out there. It’s not for lack of talent. The companies just aren’t coming to them.
A recurring theme in the movie is that you never cared about being “the girl with the guitar,” just someone who was a great player. Lots of people, like Dave Grohl, point that out.
Yeah! But it’s coming more from the actual music fans, the audience, the regular people. The industry people maybe don’t see it but the regular people do. They acknowledge you’re not just a great girl guitar player, you’re a great guitar player. They’re not placating.
And there’s the pressure on talented women to be marketable and get on magazine covers.
Right. You’ve got to decide as an artist, what do you want to do? If you want to just play and don’t care about being famous, then great. I care more about the connection and the playing than the fame, doing something that made people feel good.
Speaking of popular, there’s a moment when David Bowie and Freddie Mercury come to one of your concerts. What memories do you have of that?
I was petrified. Seven years prior, I was in my bedroom listening to them on records and then they’re standing on the side of the stage watching me. It was intimidating. I don’t remember sitting down to shoot the s— with Bowie, so I couldn’t tell you if he said anything to me. I was so nervous.
But I can tell you, earlier in my Runways career, we met Led Zeppelin — Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Do you know who Led Zeppelin is?
Because believe me, we’re getting to that point where I can’t refer to bands because kids don’t know what I’m talkin about. “What do you mean you never heard of Led Zeppelin?!” We’re in trouble.
Anyway, so it’s probably ’76, and we’re about to go on our first tour overseas. Our lead singer, Cherie [Currie], was asking Robert Plant, “How do you mark going on the road? Give us something fun to do.” And Plant said, “In England, they have these ornate hotel room keys so we would collect them.” We thought “Oh, great!” So we get to England, we’re collecting the keys, these big knobby pieces of metal that you’d use in the 1800s. Then we have to go to France and when we get to the border, customs starts searching my leather jacket and takes out the keys and goes “Theft! You’re under arrest!” I just turned 18 or 17, so I was considered an adult. I had four keys and two of the other band members each had one. And he threw me in jail! They were threatening the other two girls, like they’re going to call their mothers. Anyway, we never got to France, had to cancel our gig. And that was because Robert Plant said it would be a good idea.
You’ve played with Dave Grohl a bunch. What’s your friendship like?
He is the best, I swear. For somebody who’s so successful and so well-known — you will not meet a more down-to-earth, friendlier guy than Dave. It tells you, yes, it’s possible to be really famous and not be a complete a–hole. He gives nobody an excuse to be a dick.
Aside from the documentary, what’s next for you?
More touring, writing new music. There’s a new song in the movie called “Fresh Start” that comes at the end credits. That will be the single.
Was it written specifically for the movie?
Kind of. Our guitar player, Dougie Needles, and I were writing and we decided we wanted new music in the movie. It’s about how in life, sometimes you need to say to yourself, “Am I still enjoying what I’m doing? I need to find the fire again.” I’ve had that experience a couple times.
Part of it was just thinking about about rock in general. It’s always been a young person’s game, writing about sex, love and partying. As rock and rollers get older, what do they write about? Is it still sex, drugs, and rock and roll or bigger existential questions? How do you go deeper and not get too heavy or preachy? I’m not sure there’s an answer but we’re looking for it. It’s not saying we need to hit the restart button, but every once in a while [you] need to check yourself and see if you need that kick in the butt.