Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Punk Singer



Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer opens with a vintage clip of its subject, Kathleen Hanna, at a 1990's spoken word event. Anderson never returns to the clip or explains exactly what Hanna is talking about, but the charisma and self-possession Hanna displays signal the changes to come that she would help bring about. Hanna emerged from what sounds like an unhappy lower middle-class childhood to go to college in Washington State and become the singer of the band Bikini Kill. That band's feminist punk ignited the "riot grrrl" scene and (the film argues) helped create a space for women in music that they're still enjoying today. The clips of Bikini Kill that Anderson deploys throughout The Punk Singer are a remarkable display of Hanna's force, she is equally comfortable inviting women to fill in front of the stage as she is dealing with hecklers or having the word "slut" scrawled on her stomach. An array of Hanna's band mates and her better known peers (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett) provide context, but the most fascinating voice in the film is of course Hanna herself.

As an interview subject Kathleen Hanna is honest and probing about her own life and the pressures that come with leading a movement. Bikini Kill grew apart as they became better known (I wanted more about Hanna getting punched by Courtney Love at Lollapalooza), and after a promising beginning with new band Le Tigre Hanna's career slowed down. Hanna is happily married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, who emerges as a funny and supportive presence, but the early 2000's brought trouble. The last act of The Punk Singer details Hanna's struggles with late stage Lyme disease, the delayed diagnosis of which cost her much anxiety and years of performing. Anderson ends The Punk Singer with a tribute concert and a performance by Hanna's new band The Julie Ruin, and Hanna seems as defiant and engaged now as she did in those clips from the 1990's. The exuberant The Punk Singer reclaims Kathleen Hanna as a vital musical force and a teller of important truths.

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