Growing up, Joan Marie Larkin had big dreams. She considered becoming an archaeologist or an astronaut, and she wasn't going to let society tell her what a girl could or couldn't do. She eventually turned to music and went on to be one of the most celebrated women in rock: Joan Jett. Bad Reputation, a new documentary out now, traces her hard-fought rise to rock and roll fame.
Jett's story starts with a Christmas gift. At 13, she asked her parents specifically for an electric guitar and not an acoustic one. "I wanted to make those loud noises that I heard on the radio," she says. Her parents gave her a Sears Silvertone guitar and she promptly enrolled in guitar lessons. An early guitar teacher inspired her in a way he may not have intended.
"I said, 'Teach me how to play rock and roll,'" the musician remembers. "He said, 'Girls don't play rock and roll.'"
That response from her teacher only compelled Jett to rock harder. As a teenager, she formed an all-girl band called The Runaways. In the late 1970s, people either didn't know what to think of it or thought some pretty vile things.
"There were people right from the total, very beginning that were taking shots and being very nasty," she says. At some points, Jett had bottles and other heavy objects thrown at her while performing at shows. But when The Runaways performed abroad in places like Japan, Jett recalls a stark contrast in the fanfare of the crowd. In 1977, she remembers thousands of girls showing up to the band's shows and even rocking cars she was in.
"Women were looked at, as they are, I guess, around the world, as sort of second class citizens and so the girls were responding to what they perceived as our power, I suppose," Jett says.
The Runaways officially disbanded in 1979 due to creative differences and Jett went into a dark place. "It felt like defeat," she says. "It was gut-wrenching for me because The Runaways was my baby."
She contemplated leaving music altogether and joining the military. That is, until she met Kenny Laguna, a songwriter and producer. "She had the look and then I heard her sing," Laguna says, recalling the first time he met Jett. "It was just rock and roll, it was pure rock and roll."
Once she started to work with Laguna, Jett's audience grew. With the help of Laguna, Jett formed another band, The Blackhearts. In 1982, the band recorded a cover of the Arrows' song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" which catapulted to the top of the charts. That year, the song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for seven weeks. And yet, the band still couldn't get a record deal. So instead, the band members would print out album copies and sell them out of the trunk of their cars after gigs.
"We wanted to be on a major label but we just ... nobody wanted us. So we had to do it ourselves if we wanted to put our record out and we did it," Jett says.
Nearly four decades later, Jett's rock legacy has been solidified. Now 60, Jett still performs and says she loves connecting to the audience and watching how deeply the music reaches people.
"It's difficult to talk about 'cause I feel like I'm giving myself these credits that don't really go to me, it's kind of a universe thing. I'm just a conduit, you know?" Jett says.
"A pretty good one," Laguna adds.
Bad Reputation is out now in theaters, On Demand, on iTunes and on Amazon Prime Video.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When she was young, Joan Marie Larkin had big dreams, and she wasn't about to let being a girl get in the way.
JOAN MARIE LARKIN: There were a lot of things I wanted to be in life. I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be so many different things.
MARTIN: She settled on music and today is one of the most celebrated women in rock. You know her as Joan Jett.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD REPUTATION")
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) I don't give a damn about my reputation. Living in the past is a new generation.
MARTIN: There's a new documentary that traces her rise to fame. It's called "Bad Reputation." And her story begins with a Christmas gift.
LARKIN: It was a Sears Silvertone, I believe. I asked my parents for an electric guitar. I was very specific that it not be an acoustic guitar and - for Christmas, and they got it for me.
MARTIN: Why an electric guitar?
LARKIN: Because I wanted to make those loud noises that I heard on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS SONG, "I HATE MYSELF FOR LOVING YOU")
MARTIN: But first, Joan Jett had to learn how to play it. An early guitar teacher inspired her in a way he may not have intended.
LARKIN: I said, teach me how to play rock 'n' roll. He said, girls don't play rock 'n' roll.
MARTIN: You think that compelled you even further, to have someone...
MARTIN: As a teenager, Joan formed her first band, an all-girl hard rock group called The Runaways. Today they seem way ahead of their time. But in the late '70s, many people didn't know what to think, and the thoughts that did occur to them were pretty vile.
LARKIN: There were people right from the total very beginning that were taking shots and being very nasty.
MARTIN: What did they say exactly?
LARKIN: Slut, dyke, whore, [expletive] - trying to throw us off our game, trying to get us not to have that sort of confidence in our own selves. And that was easy to do because as teenage girls, I was not confident. You know, and I sort of fed off the other girls, you know? The fact that they were there made me feel, OK, well, we can fight this together.
MARTIN: Am I right that you were actually physically hurt at one point, someone do something to you?
LARKIN: Oh, yeah, a couple times. Yeah, people throwing heavy objects at you, bottles or...
MARTIN: At shows?
LARKIN: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
MARTIN: They loved you in Japan, though.
LARKIN: Yes, they did. And it was mostly girls, too. Women were looked at, as they are I guess around the world, as sort of second-class citizens. And so the girls were responding to what they perceived as our power, I suppose - thousands of girls rocking our car and stuff. It was quite a juxtaposition from what we experienced in the States.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERRY BOMB")
THE RUNAWAYS: (Singing) Hello, daddy. Hello, mom. I'm your cherry bomb. Hello, world. I'm your wild girl. I'm your cherry bomb.
MARTIN: Roughly a year later, you decided that the band had just gone in a different direction and you had to leave. What was that decision like?
LARKIN: So horrible. It felt like defeat. And it was all for stupid reasons, I thought. And, you know, so it was really - it was gut-wrenching for me because The Runaways was my baby.
MARTIN: You went into a pretty dark place.
LARKIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: What do you remember from that time?
LARKIN: (Laughter) Yeah, not a lot. I was trying to bury it all, you know? It was too painful to sort of try to assess it and figure out what happened. I mean, I was in trouble. And I thought about joining the military 'cause I thought, I'll learn something. I'll meet people. I'll get some discipline. I'll travel.
And I never had to do that because a couple of weeks later, I met Kenny Laguna, who met me to complete a project that The Runaways had signed on to before we broke up, to write some songs for a movie. And Kenny's here, so you can... (laughter).
MARTIN: So Kenny - I'll bring in Kenny in just a second, but I want to set this up a little more.
MARTIN: So you meet this guy, this music producer, Kenny Laguna.
MARTIN: Kenny had made a name for himself doing music that is different than yours. It was something called bubblegum music at the time. And I wanted to play a little bit. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY")
OHIO EXPRESS: (Singing) Yummy, yummy, yummy. I got love in my tummy. And I feel like loving you.
MARTIN: I mean, when you heard that and you heard his name, were you like, I don't know if this is going to be the greatest fit?
LARKIN: I'll tell you. You know, I totally as a kid was into those songs. You know, they're certainly catchy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY")
OHIO EXPRESS: (Singing) Oh, love, I love it so.
MARTIN: Kenny, what do you remember about meeting Joan the first time?
KENNY LAGUNA: Well, we were at the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard. That's where we stayed. And she walked in. She had a black leather jacket. I remember razorblades. They probably weren't there. But she had the look. And then I heard her sing, and it was just rock 'n' roll. It was pure rock 'n' roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE ROCK 'N' ROLL")
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) I saw him dancing there by the record machine. I knew he must have been about 17.
LAGUNA: When we went around the country, the audiences started growing. Like, for instance, there was a place called the Malibu. First time we played there, there was 54 people. The next time, they had to close highways 5 miles away. It was like Woodstock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE ROCK 'N' ROLL")
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) Singing, I love rock 'n' roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby. I love rock 'n' roll, so come and take your time and dance with me.
LAGUNA: And yet we still couldn't get a record deal.
LARKIN: I mean, we wanted to be on a major label, but we just - nobody wanted us. So we had to do it ourselves if we wanted to put a record out. And we did it. We printed it up a hundred, 500 copies, and we would sell them out of the trunk of the car after the gig.
LAGUNA: It would just always amaze me that nobody would sign you. But thank God they didn't because now we have "I Love Rock 'N' Roll."
LAGUNA: And we have "Bad Reputation."
MARTIN: Are you still performing?
LARKIN: I sure am.
MARTIN: What do you love about it still?
LARKIN: The connection with people and how the music, when it reaches people, how deeply that goes, and what a wide variety of experiences people have had with the music. It's, I mean, difficult to talk about 'cause I feel like I'm giving myself these credits that don't really go to me. It's kind of a universe thing. I'm just a conduit, you know?
LAGUNA: A pretty good one.
(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD REPUTATION")
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) That's what I'm going to say. And I don't give a damn about my bad reputation. Oh, no, not me.
MARTIN: Joan Jett and her longtime producer Kenny Laguna - the documentary is called "Bad Reputation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.