Film Review: The Punk SingerDoc offers revelations alongside an invigorating recap of Kathleen Hanna's influential career.
When Kathleen Hanna (the singer for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) dropped out of music in 2005, even her bandmates thought it was because the performer—outspoken for years about feminism and punk-rock machismo—had said all she wanted to say. In Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer, Hanna reveals there's more to the story—an advanced case of Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for so long that she herself didn't fully understand the reasons behind her early retirement. Though clearly hoping to raise awareness about the disease (Anderson reports she is also infected), the doc happily devotes most of its time to a stylish, energetic account of Hanna's career to date and the impact it has had on a generation of women. The film should attract attention within the pop cognoscenti and may win Hanna's old bands new fans along the way.
Powerful vintage performance footage shows quickly what made Hanna so provocative: Though fighting sexism was her front-and-center agenda, Hanna took the stage in skimpy outfits, sometimes with "slut" written on a bare midriff, and danced in a punk-meets-girlie-show way that was undeniably sexy.
Many saw this as a contradiction (and others on the scene simply didn't want to be told their bruising mosh pits were a form of sexism), but Anderson finds a parade of women who immediately understood what Hanna was up to: Bandmates and college peers are joined by Joan Jett, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and others to unpack all the ways the performer's work—both the message and its delivery—spoke to a vast community of like-minded women. (Not that they had to agree on everything: In co-founding the Riot Grrrl movement, she was insistent that the name belonged to any woman with something to say.)
Bikini Kill found the spotlight early, but Hanna felt mistreated by the media—particularly in reporting about her college gig as a stripper and her relationship with her "sexually inappropriate" father—enough to retreat. The film maintains an engaging narrative as it follows her from Olympia, Washington, to D.C. and Portland, watches her explore her pop muse in Le Tigre, and recounts her unexpected relationship with Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys.
What will be new to fans is Hanna's firsthand account of the mysterious physical symptoms that started to interfere with her performances, her many misdiagnoses, and her pained decision to leave Le Tigre. Much in the world of Lyme disease is controversial, and the film doesn't spend so much time on this subject that it detracts from Hanna's art and politics. Viewers who worry over shots of Hanna's fistful-of-pills drug regimen and the troubling side effects it brings on will be heartened by footage of the singer's new band, The Julie Ruin, appearing at an emotional tribute concert in New York City.