The Punk Singer

Dir: Sini Anderson, 2013. Starring: Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon. Documentaries.
The Punk Singer

Cults can be wonderful, as The Punk Singer—Sini Anderson’s admirably idolatrous celebration of punker Kathleen Hanna—makes clear. Hanna always inspired a devoted few and it never seemed to matter if her fundamentalist fervor, totally understandable hypocrisies, or bratty indifference to anything more politically nuanced than “Suck My Left One” made her look simplistic to outsiders who wondered what the fuss was about. Hanna’s fans did not care and honestly I salute them. As The Punk Singer makes clear, once the Riot Grrrl movement got national media attention and some stories were written that Hanna’s band Bikini Kill disapproved of they reacted with a media blackout. They stopped talking to journalists because it was assumed they couldn’t be trusted to “get it.” As one of her next band’s (Le Tigre) songs went: “It’s just a joke man; it’s just an interview. You wouldn’t get it; I guess this shit is too new.”

Well, yes and no. Though little is said about the punk front women who preceded the punk of The Punk Singer, there were tons! Where to begin? Ari Up, Poly Styrene—it would be useless to even attempt to cover those bases here. But suffice to say Hanna worshipped those women even if the film about her doesn’t credit them for blazing a trail for her to follow. Still, Hanna was undeniably captivating right from the start. She looked great and she made people uncomfortable which is a really good combination for anyone fronting a rock n’ roll band.

The Punk Singer charts Hanna’s rise—from Olympia, Washington zine grrl to her contentious years with Bikini Kill to her comparatively smooth tenure as singer for professional feminist dance punks Le Tigre—before finally questioning why she walked away. What happened was that she started suffering from late stage Lyme disease and couldn’t perform any more. The parts of the movie where Hanna and her husband Adam Horovitz (from the Beastie Boys) talk about coping with her illness and the toll it has taken are pretty moving. And it’s also touching the way a lot of the women interviewed feel about Hanna’s disappearance. They feel a little bit abandoned but love her too much to resent her for it especially when they find out the truth about her illness. When they talk about her it’s like they’re talking about an older sister they will always look up to.

I think I like bands with girl singers more than any other kind but the ladies I always gravitated to were the icy, laconic, “whatever” kind: Patty Donohue from The Waitresses, Justine from Elastica, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry. I think Hanna’s earnestness scared me off. Also, I didn't like how her lyrics, her statements, and her general attitude put me on the defensive for reasons I couldn’t always figure out. Now, though, I kind of appreciate that she could elicit that reaction from me and probably many others ostensibly sympathetic to her cause. It wasn't really for us. The Punk Singer makes you realize what an incredible force she had as a singer, an artist, whatever. The film crystalizes how much she meant to the people whose lives she changed. So I can appreciate that the film is so unbalanced. She deserves the love and the respect.

Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 11, 2014 2:32pm
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