Entertainment :: Movies

The Punk Singer

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Nov 29, 2013
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Kathleen Hanna in ’The Punk Singer’
Kathleen Hanna in ’The Punk Singer’  (Source:IFC Films)

OK, now. Put down your box sets of "Girls" and buy a ticket to a movie about one of the original Grrrls -- as in Riot Grrrls -- Kathleen Hanna, subject of Sini Anderson’s documentary... or make that rockumentary... "The Punk Singer."

Hanna charged into the music scene in the early 1990s with her band Bikini Kill and, to hear this film tell it, single-handedly rewrote the rule book. Not only would punk rock now be a medium for feminist expression, but also a workshop for feminist theory brought to life with startling immediacy: Female fans were welcome to crowd the stage at Bikini Kill concerts, and while men were welcome at the shows (there was even a male band member), they were well advised to mind their manners lest they receive a chiding -- fearless, direct -- from Hanna herself, mid-set.

Hanna possesses a striking beauty, which makes her message of female empowerment all the more distinctive. She’s not a lesbian -- she married beastie Boy Adam Horovitz in 2006, and he participates in the film, chatting with Anderson and at one point, shouldering a video camera to capture his wife’s distressed commentary on living with a chronic disease -- and she’s not hard-shelled. If anything, Hanna has an artist’s heart, open, questioning, reflective. Just don’t try to tell her that her story or her ideas carry less weight than those of men. She won’t have it.

Anderson interviews Hanna extensively for this documentary, and Hanna proves willing to talk about all sort of things: Her bands (she went on to form the group Le Tigre after Bikini Kill, and then, after a long struggle with Lyme disease, formed a third band, The Julie Ruin); her relationship with her father (he was "sexually inappropriate," she says, but he did not rape her; she’s firm on this point); and the pressures and health concerns that brought an end, respectively, to Bikini Kill and Le Tigre.

Anderson also interviews a host of others from Hanna’s milieu -- bandmates, singers, writers, feminist theorists. Joan Jett weighs in, as do Jennifer Baumgardner, the Bikini Kill members, and fellow Le Tigre member / actor / producer Jocelyn "JD" Samson.

It’s when the camera rests on Hanna, though, that the film crackles at full intensity. We see her at her best; we also see her on the occasional bad day. She’s picks her way, approachable but articulately, through issues you’d expect to bring her to tears, but only chokes up when she has to recount how falling ill meant surrender to something outside her own will.

Hanna’s no Disney princess, but you’d think, watching "The Punk Singer," that she’s had something of a fairy tale life: The girl who decided, almost on a whim, to start a band, and became a driving force. Her work on feminist fanzines, her troubled relationship with the press, and her years-long struggle with Lyme disease make this particular fairy tale less pristine and ideal than the fluffy and sparkly sort, but that’s not, you sense, the sort of Hanna would want to lead anyway. Let there be dragons; microphone in her hand, Hanna will stand up to slay them herself.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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