The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s briskly paced, 80-minute film examines Kathleen Hanna’s ascension as unofficial spokeswoman of the riot grrl movement. From her involvement in feminist zines to her political activism, Hanna, vocalist for Bikini Kill, embodied the whole alternative rock/riot grrl aesthetic.
The Punk Singer deals with Hanna’s personal journey, not the riot grrl movement as a whole. Through personal photos, archival footage and new interviews, Anderson explores Hanna’s childhood, rise to prominence and her sudden departure from performing in 2005.
Raised by an emotionally abusive father and a mother who volunteered for woman’s rights organizations, Hanna had a difficult childhood. During a tough-love moment, Mom didn’t catch her daughter during a trust fall: “Let that be a lesson to you. Never trust anyone, even your own mother,” her mom told her.
Kathleen’s family lived in Oregon and Maryland until she graduated from high school. Hanna moved to Olympia, Washington, to study photography and worked as a stripper to support herself. She joined the performance poetry scene, and it soon became apparent that Hanna’s firebrand presence demanded a bigger platform than poetry. After watching her perform, experimental writer Kathy Acker, encouraged Hanna to start a band. The film is dedicated to Acker, Hanna’s most prominent creative influence as a young woman.
After few short stints with other bands, she formed Bikini Kill with Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren. They also produced a ‘zine of the same name, addressing such topics as sexism, rape and abortion. “We just needed to take feminist stuff we read in books and filtered it through a punk rock lense,” Hanna says of the band.
The film’s quick-cut style explores Bikini Kill’s career peak with clips of Hanna pogoing up and down onstage in a crop top and bikini bottoms, urging “girls to the front!” when mosh pits got too wild, and taking the brash punk rock girl persona to a new, more substantive extreme.
Anderson frames the film by mentioning Hanna’s unexplained sabbatical from touring with electro-punk band Le Tigre in the early 2000s. Hanna kept quiet on her reasons for dropping out of the music scene, which caused lots of speculation and many confused fans.
Interviewees include a circle of Hanna’s musical contemporaries like Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Alison Wolfe of Bratmobile, Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman and JD Samson — and Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. On paper, Hanna and Horovitz weren’t the perfect couple, but they’ve been together since 1997 and happily married since 2006. We learn firsthand about the duo’s unlikely, but romantic, courtship.
The film shifts gears into a slower, reflective pace to explain why Hanna left the music world so suddenly, while enjoying rekindled success with Le Tigre. Due to inadequately diagnosed Lyme disease, her health failed in the mid-2000s. Temporarily retired from the music biz, she and Horovitz settled into a quiet life as she received treatment for her illness. Hanna has now resumed performing and writing new material for her band, the Julie Ruin. Their new album, Run Fast, was released on September 3.
The Punk Singer, a riveting look at a feminist icon who helped shape ideals for many teen girls in the ’90s, is now available on iTunes and Amazon. The film is also playing at select theaters across the U.S.
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