A review of The Punk Singer

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In 1992, during a Bikini Kill show at the Sanctuary Theater in D.C., frontwoman Kathleen Hanna shushes the audience. “I want to share something with everyone now,” she says, and brings a tape recorder to the mic. On the tape, we can hear Hanna talking with a charming young man who asserts that, “most of the girls ask for it.” “This song is dedicated to him,” she says coolly. Drummer Tobi Vail then counts off, driving Bikini Kill into punk rock fury. Hanna, donning a mini dress, white boots, and her characteristic high ponytail, hops around the stage before wailing the anthemic opening lyric, face flushed and neck vein bulging, “Suck my left one!”

To the audience at The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s documentary portrait of Kathleen Hanna, footage like this was not only expected, but celebrated. As a primary torchbearer of the riot grrrl movement, an outspoken activist, and a critic of the boy’s club that is punk rock, it makes sense that Hanna has picked up more than a few enthused fans along the way. Anderson’s film takes us through the tenure of Hanna’s career in punk, from the grainy footage of late-80s Olympia, Washington to her time in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, all the while probing at why the incendiary musician stopped performing in 2005. The final act of the film answers this question, delving into Hanna’s struggle with late stage Lyme disease.

In some rock docs, such as The Replacements’ Color Me Obsessed, the band or musician in question is largely absent, leaving peers and fans to talk about their own memories. Kathleen Hanna’s voice, however, is one that isn’t easily subsumed or substituted. In The Punk Singer, Hanna is front and center, as the documentary is filled with interviews of her recalling her own experiences in the underground punk community, not all of which were positive. Hanna recounts the challenges of creating spaces for women at punk shows (girls to the front!) and the slandering of the press, resulting in Bikini Kill’s media blackout in 1993.

Though Hanna’s own voice is in many ways the film’s center, that is not to say she commandeers the film; The Punk Singer assembles a collection of female musicians, artists, and peers of Hanna, ranging from the new guard of young feminists (Tavi Gevinson) to the well established (Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker, and Joan Jett, to name a few). The girls-only roster of interviewees was insisted at the behest of Hanna, who turned down figures like Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, and Calvin Johnson for appearances in the film. The commentary is provided only by women, leaving her husband (and Beastie Boy) Adam Horovitz as the only male influence in the film.

The Punk Singer is at its heart a film about activism, drawing deeply from footage of zine-making, riot grrrl collectives, and Hanna’s own radical stage presence, the word “SLUT” painted on her midriff during shows. But it is as much about Hanna the performer/activist as it is about Hanna the person. The documentary includes things about Hanna’s life that were previously kept under low profile, such as her upbringing, her relationship with Horovitz, and her health. The film’s third act veers away from her musical endeavors to a more personal, albeit brief, account of her battle with advanced Lyme disease, which caused her to quit performing in 2005. This footage, replete with IVs and prescription bottles, culminate in Hanna’s emotional return to music in the form of The Julie Ruin. Based on the band’s kinetic performance, it’s clear that neither Hanna’s ambitions nor her ability to command a crowd has diminished. “Feminism is something you do, not something necessarily you have to call yourself,” Hanna recently told the Times. “There’s still a lot to scream about.” With Hanna back on stage and a new guard of bands like Priests, Joanna Gruesome, and Perfect Pussy garnering attention, it’s clear that that scream has yet to be quelled.