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.