The Punk Singer
Directed by Sini Anderson
A look at the life of activist, musician, and cultural icon Kathleen Hanna, who formed the punk band Bikini Kill and pioneered the "riot grrrl" movement of the 1990s.
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★★★★ review by Willow Maclay on Letterboxd
It's very difficult for me to talk about this film, because in a way Kathleen Hanna was instrumental in saving my life. This is my Kathleen Hanna story.
I was a fourteen year old transgender girl who fucking hated her body. I hated that I couldn't reconcile how I felt internally with what was happening to me day in and day out with puberty. I was being forced into a gender role that didn't fit at all and anytime I expressed any sort of inkling that something was wrong with me I was told it was a phase. I hid myself for years and internalized a lot of shame and hurt. Most of this was handed out by parents who would care more about their political and religious ideas than actually showing compassion and love for their child. So I hated myself and I didn't have any kind of outlet at all to express myself or anything to believe in. In truth I think at this time I was mostly waiting for the right opportunity to just end everything because I couldn't handle it anymore. Something happened later that year though. I found riot grrrl, and it was like I was opened up to an entirely new world. Finally I had something that expressed my anger and frustrations with the world and my emotionally abusive parents. My band of choice was Bikini Kill and they were fronted by Kathleen Hanna (the subject of this documentary). I put everything in their music because at the time it was the only thing that I had. They introduced me to feminism, to the lgbtq community, to punk rock, and they still mean an incredible amount to me today.
There is one scene in the movie where Kathleen recounts getting fan letters from women who told similar stories as mine. She talks about how at the time she was crumbling from the negativity and hatred she was experiencing from the music press and the violent threats she was getting from men. She said that those letters saved her. Kathleen Hanna saved me.
I told my story because essentially that's what The Punk Singer is about. It's about a woman who started a musical revolution and gave women a voice and something to believe in when they needed it. She did that for me. She did that for many.
★★★★ review by Sam Van Hallgren on Letterboxd
Emphasis on THE.
Nothing special about the doc, but plenty interesting about Hanna. As a guy raising two daughters (and a son for that matter), Hanna and the movement she became the mouthpiece for are essential and iconic.
Girls to the front.
★★★★ review by Simone on Letterboxd
I knew nothing about Kathleen Hanna before I stepped into The Punk Singer at my local arthouse theater. What drew me in was the feminist bent her music had throughout her career. She was in Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin, none of which I'd heard of before I saw the documentary. As soon as it was over, I was searching out her music on the internet and I really connected to it. Being a feminist isn't always about having the exact same shitty experiences that other women have been through. It's really about raising awareness that it's a lot harder to be a woman than it is to be a man when it comes to feeling safe and secure in your own skin. The documentary is extremely biased and overly congratulatory, but it made me feel things and want to learn more about Hanna's legacy.
★★★½ review by Vanina on Letterboxd
Kathleen Hanna is a unique human being, one that definitely deserves to have a film made about her. I enjoyed half of 'The Punk Singer' immensely, while the other half left me feeling uninvolved. On the outset, I would have thought that the part about Bikini Kill would have interested me the most, while the part about a later career would leave me indifferent. The surpising bit? It's the other way around with this film.
I love music documentaries and watch a lot of them, and lately I find myself questioning the validity of talking heads chosen. 'The Punk Singer' is a great example: Kathleen Hanna's work with Bikini Kill, the fanzines and Riot Grrrl movement are incredibly interesting and worthwhile topics, but they get snowed under by all of the bazillion people saying "oh, there are such incredibly interesting and worthwhile topics".
Show 'em, don't tell 'em, right? Or if you want to tell, 20 people saying something is "interesting" is a lot less powerful than one person explaining why. I can draw my own conclusions about why Hanna's work is incredibly valuable (the experiment of "girls to the front" and her extensive discussion of bedroom culture interested me greatly), but hearing 20 people say "it's really valuable" just muddles up the argument, makes it way more vague than it needs to be.
The choice of female pundits was inspired, but the pundits themselves could have been more inspiring.
The second half of the film, post-Bikini Kill, feels a lot more intimate, with less talking heads and more focus and serious dicussion about Hanna's motivations, and later health issues. That second half makes the film worthwhile, because it's closer to Hanna in several ways - she's more open and more sure of herself in her artistic choices.
★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd
Introductions to feminism have a tendency to sound like a day at the beach. First waves, second waves, third waves...
I don't mean to be flippant; I love the continuity inherent in that image. I love the insistence that feminism will keep coming at you till the job's done. The same can be said for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre front woman and feminist icon Kathleen Hanna, and that is exactly what documentary film maker Sini Anderson puts out there in her inspiring feature debut, The Punk Singer.
Anderson's documentary isn't preachy, it has no need to be. It is direct, loving, and fucking fierce just like her subject.
Hanna isn't a wave, she's an epicentre. Right from her early years it is clear that Hanna recognised not just the injustice around her but the ridiculousness of staying silent in the face of it. She vocalised this distaste. She visualised it. She threw it unapologetically in people's faces and that was that. She wasn't interested in starting a dialogue or what would nowadays take the form of an Internet flame war. She put it out there, if you didn't like it, you could fuck off.
Musically, Anderson tracks Hanna through her days in Bikini Kill, her solo work as Julie Ruin, her dance-pop success with Le Tigre and on to her latest project The Julie Ruin (with the definite article) and in doing so only reinforces how inseparable Hanna's music and her politics are.
Anderson presents Hanna not as a reluctant leader (though she most definitely was) but as a defiant individual who tore through gender sensibilities, muscling out a space for other third wave feminists take control. Her music and her work in the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s was all about getting the message out on her terms and creating a space for others to do the same. She changed the rules of the game for gigs in the 90s. She forcibly reclaimed the mosh pit for women while she was onstage and gave them a space to thrash out to Bikini Kill's confronting lyrics of abuse, body ownership and identity.
That left a real mark.
Anderson isn't shy about talking up Hannah's influence on the American music scene. From her base in the Washington punk scene and art-punk movement, Hanna's politicised music sensibility bled into the mainstream, at least in the music press, and possibly beyond. Her friendship with Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain most probably legitimised a good deal of his feminine aesthetic, and she famously handed him one of Nirvana's most famous song titles when she scrawled the words "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall one drunken night following a raid on a fake abortion clinic.
But it is Hannah's influence on the women who saw her perform and were touched by her activism that interests Anderson far more - her film is peppered with dedications from women who have been inspired, scaffolded, reinforced and reinvigorated through Hanna's work, and who speak of Hanna with the reverence usually reserved for musical luminaries such as Dillon, Lennon and any number of other old white men.
Watching her on-stage belting out her agenda, marshalling the crowds and performing her arse off, it is no wonder that the became, and continues to be, the rallying point for so many activists. Hanna's energy and ferocious talent cuts through the fuzzy images and distorted sounds of the live performance footage Anderson has sourced for her film, of which there's an impressive amount. Much of this footage drawn from crowd based video cameras and mobile phones, so it blends seamlessly with the film's zine-inspired punk aesthetic. Nobody will deny that Anderson's film is a budget affair but it rarely shows because of its inherent simplicity. And, truth be told, Anderson doesn't need to shell out for flashy film technique because she has unfettered access to such an incredible subject.
That access translates into an incredibly intimate documentary. Hanna is a frank, no nonsense interviewee and it takes Anderson a while to peel back Hanna's media hardened exterior but when she does and Hanna opens up about her disappearance from the music scene and the gruelling fight she has undertaken to claw her way back into it, the scenes feel almost too personal to watch, Hanna's emotional admissions in front of Anderson's camera serve to reinforce how important a power source her music and her activism are to her. They are her lifeblood.
The Punk Singer is a remarkable portrait of a remarkable woman whose impact only continues to grow. It is a film that feeds off its subject's vitality onstage and her fierce intellect off of it. Hopefully this film will gain an audience beyond Hanna's clearly devoted fan-base and revitalise the fight that remains far from won. Maybe it will even launch a second wave of feminist punk rock and a fourth wave of feminism. I wouldn't put it past it.
Both will be more than welcome.
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