Reviewed by Denah A. Johnston
This review is part of double feature on the film The Punk Singer. Please check out Moira Sullivan’s interview with director Sini Anderson here.
The Punk Singer (2013) Directed by Sini Anderson. Starring Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Adam Horovitz and Joan Jett.
I had waited the longest time to see this film. The anticipation was killing me. I had only discovered Riot Grrrl in college; before that, the zines, tours, and bands skipped over my part of the flyover zone, where it was needed the most. Finally, at Ohio University, Bikini Kill was blaring from a mix tape provided by a friend. In the middle of nowhere, adrift on a sea of alienation, I was finally tapping into the energy and conversation–only to find out Bikini Kill was breaking up. I would never see them and make it to the front of the stage, a possibility Kathleen Hanna and other riot grrrls had fought so vigilantly for: from the highest high to a staggering low in one fluid motion. Nearly 20 years later, Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer is many things. It has been unfairly criticized for being a glowing highlight reel of Kathleen Hanna’s artistic, feminist, activist, and musical projects bordering on hagiography, and for not focusing enough on the larger movement of feminism or Riot Grrrl. In my view, those misguided criticisms miss the fact that the film, at once fierce and delicate, delivers feminism through a punk rock lens via the life and music of Kathleen Hanna.
The film begins with Kathleen Hanna performing spoken word in 1991. She speaks and then shouts, “I am your worst nightmare come to life / I’m a girl you can’t shut up.”
Intimately captured moments of Hanna making music—at the doctor’s office, preparing for the first live performance in years—are quilted together seamlessly with zine graphics, thoughtful layout, vintage video footage, and photographs, which form a living, breathing testament of the hurdles, challenges, and triumphs she has faced and achieved through the years. From receiving death threats as the confrontational lead singer of Bikini Kill to going underground to create an album under the alias Julie Ruin, then reemerging with the hybrid electro-feminist pop art performance group, Le Tigre, The Punk Singer covers previously unconnected and severely neglected dots. Beyond the recollections and background information provided by a who’s who in alternative 90’s music, the Northwest grunge scene and riot grrrl staples, Hanna emerges a complex and compelling character. Admitting that for years her identity revolved around her band, she realized that she needed to find herself. Anderson aids her subject in working on the time and space to tell the story and put the narrative trajectory together. Encouraged and championed by the likes of Kathy Acker and Joan Jett, it is no wonder Hanna took the world by storm.
I hesitate to call the film a “rock doc,” it seems to bleed beyond the limits of such shallow and historically commercial-driven fare. I may feel this way because I am personally invested in the subject matter. What is refreshing is the discovery within The Punk Singer of new pieces of film, music, and activist history. Anderson along with her brave co-producers (Tamra Davis, Rachel Dengiz, Alan Oxman, Gwen Bialic, and Erin Owens) ensured this film and Hanna’s story could be told in a fresh, engaging, and interesting way. The graphics recall the cut and paste aesthetic of zines of yore, while the content is just as bold. Here we are presented with one woman’s story from the eye of the storm to quiet, reflective moments. The spectrum presented spans from vulnerable to on stage and in charge. For the first time we can see the three-dimenionality of Hanna, who just happened to be on the crest of Third Wave feminism with a megaphone in hand. In a time when feminism is still reviled by many as the “f-word” connoting stereotypical angry, man-hating lesbians, Anderson and Hanna serve to remind us there are many injustices and reasons to speak up, incite awareness, and create change.
Spurned on due to a mysterious illness that was diagnosed during filming as late-stage Lyme disease, Hanna saw the project as an immediate opportunity to tell her story. Sharing that she sidelined herself because she could not physically meet the demands of an endless tour schedule with Le Tigre, she helps give voice to people who must compromise their quality of life and work due to chronic illness. In doing so, Anderson, who also suffers from the disease, and Hanna crystallize the universality of the difficulties faced by people who insist there is something wrong with them but continue to go undiagnosed and dismissed by their doctors, families, and communities. I imagine one of the reasons Hanna returns to music with a vengeance resides in experiences such as a seemingly innocent trust exercise with her mother, who chose a blunt teachable moment. When Hanna fell back expecting to be caught, her mother stepped back, allowing her to fall. Laughing, she said, “Let that be a lesson to you. Don’t trust anyone, not even your own mother.”
Hanna’s relationship with husband and former Beastie Boy, Adam Horovitz, is also included. Having met and fallen in love against the odds and on the down low at the peak of Riot Grrrl, he has continued to be a support for her through the best and worst of times–accompanying her to the doctor’s office, giving her shots, and speaking up for women’s rights in the aftermath of Woodstock 1999 at the MTV Awards.
With the self-reinforcing mantra of “other people can think whatever they want, but they just have to stay out of my way,” Hanna shines as a beacon of hope, a pioneer addressing countless ills that have not really changed – rape, sexism, misogyny – regardless of activism and education. She reminds us that problems still exist and need to be confronted and defeated, that we still have a ways to go, despite decades of feminism, and that we are as multifaceted as snowflakes. In “Girls Like Us” she sings:
Girls like us like cotton candy, plastic handbags, alcohol.
Girls like us sometimes ignore people on the street, even other people that we know.
Girls like us sneak breaks at Wendy’s and girls like us invented jazz.
Girls like us have no foundations, creation myths are so passé.
Girls like us.
Reemerging with a new band, The Julie Ruin, and her first album in nine years, Hanna toured this year, bringing us her signature sound: calling out so others can know they are not alone. Speaking about various ways in which she has been abused (which speaks to the experiences of others) Hanna shares, “I wouldn’t want to tell anybody the whole entire story because it sounded crazy. It sounded just, like, too big of a can of worms. Like, who would believe me? And then I was like, other women would believe me.” This taps into the unspoken and perhaps unconscious reason she started on the path that she continues on today. A rebel girl, Kathleen Hanna is every mother’s worst nightmare and every girl’s dream.