Kathleen Hanna is a punk rock feminist armed with a valley girl patois and brimming with attitude that is equally enthralling, liberating and intimidating. She is credited as a seminal figure in the riot grrl movement — a form of third-wave feminism invested in the self-empowering creative possibilities of underground journalism and rock music. Her first band, Bikini Kill, played a significant role in expanding and breaking new ground for riot grrl by delivering a cathartically aggressive feminist rock sound to young women who had never seen another female take the stage in a male-dominated genre quite this way. Hanna’s famous instructions during live performance, “Girls to the front, boys to the back,” captures what rock music can contribute to a feminist political project.
With The Punk Singer, director Sini Anderson offers a passionate and informative character study of Hanna and creates an accessible and potent introduction for those who may not be familiar with the singer or Bikini Kill or social movements defined by deliberate misspellings of “girl.” But even more impressively, Anderson captures the experience of Kathleen Hanna: the feeling of witnessing her on stage, the empowering attitude and philosophy of riot grrl culture, and the changes that life brings to one’s creative output. Yes, you’ll come away from The Punk Singer with a clear understanding of why Hanna is important, but the film is hardly a distant and methodical portrait of a figure important to recent music history. The Punk Singer goes well beyond simply studying Hanna and identifying with her. You’ll have a hard time holding back your fist as it longs to pump in the air to The Julie Ruin, her most recent project, blasting through the end credits.
Anderson takes a mostly linear approach to Hanna’s life, tracking her evolution from a slam poet that provides witness to the difficult home lives many young women endure, through her college years as a woman unsatisfied with a rigidly gendered artistic curriculum, and finally to her arrival as an unofficial spokesperson for a new feminism. But the film also makes several more personal connections between Hanna’s private and public lives in chronicling her marriage to Beastie Boy Adam “Adrock” Horovitz and her debilitating battle with lime disease. Through all of this, Hanna is the primary witness to her own narrative. Her spoken accounts of her music, her fame and the problematic media receptions she’s endured alongside her fellow rockers shows that Hanna is as compelling a self-historian as she is a singer. Anderson doesn’t stage an investigation into the “real life” of a “celebrity image,” but instead portrays the pragmatic reality of a life in rock music for a woman.
Anderson makes the shrewd decision of keeping her subjects separate during interviews, allowing them to recount their stories and impressions on their own terms. This is particularly effective when cutting back and forth between Horovitz and Hanna’s tales of their relationship. The decision perfectly encapsulates Hanna’s initial ambivalence about falling in love with one of the men behind the sexist song “Girls.” Several other key characters make regular and substantive appearances, including musicians Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, filmmaker Tamra Davis and many, many figures that were involved in or observed the riot grrl scene.
Where The Punk Singer falls short is in its reductive placement of Hanna as that lens through which to see the whole of riot grrl, or even third wave feminism at large. Anderson’s film at times seems uncertain about who its audience is. For example, at one point the film interrupts detailed nostalgic reflections on the ’90s riot grrl scene for a capsule lecture on the history of feminism in the United States. This two-minute sequence predictably oversimplifies American feminism as one unvaried effort towards a rather mainstream pursuit of equality, and as a result it undersells the more systemic and radical rethinking of patriarchy akin to a “fuck the system” philosophy that punk rock amplifies so well. Moreover, other seminal figures are undervalued or elided entirely. Sadie Benning, whose inventive, experimental videomaking strongly exemplifies the unique possibilities of the bedroom culture Hanna venerates, isn’t even given a mention regarding her contribution to the formation of Le Tigre, one of Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill projects.
Hanna is a captivating and fascinating subject: an accomplished musician, an acerbic cultural critic and a survivor. Her story stands out amongst a sea of contemporary documentary portraits of under-recognized minority rock musicians — this is to say that I enjoyed The Punk Singer more than A Band Called Death and Searching for Sugar Man. The Punk Singer is a solid portrait of a punk rock force, one that could inspire a new generation of young women — who may have never heard of Hanna or riot grrl before — to pick up a guitar and speak their minds. But for all that this film offers, perhaps there is an inherent contradiction in attempting to capture a democratizing movement through an individual figure, as rocktastic and badass as that figure might be.
The Punk Singer opens Friday in New York City and Los Angeles. For more details and info on upcoming screenings in other cities, visit the film’s website.