The sweetly screaming figure with the word SLUT written prominently on her midriff has just grabbed an audience by the ears. As the last clash of cymbals falls, she tells the girls to come to the front to get away from the violently moshing boys. She then launches into the next hook-blooming, distortion happy song with a look of tortured bliss on her face. This is Kathleen Hanna, the songwriter and singer for Bikini Kill. She’s the one making all the noise.
She’s also the subject of the new documentary The Punk Singer, which sees director Sini Anderson exploring the art, fame and activism of a proud feminist icon who had bigger balls than many of her male counterparts.
Hanna’s story is definitely noteworthy and her charisma, the brand that entranced thousands of fans at live shows and political rallies, is still intense as she takes us through her beginnings as a visual artist, her shift from spoken word to music (because no one goes to listen to spoken word…) the trials Bikini Kill faced as a successful band, her direct activism, and her life beyond a spotlight that almost always criticized as it focused.
Beyond a killer backdrop of sound and footage of live shows, the doc features insightful interviews with figures like Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein and Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys). All of them shape the context for a truly fascinating life story that impacted both the entertainment world and the social structure of the 1990s. Granted, the interviews are done with a friendly firing squad, so there’s always the air of a controlled story even as we get to see behind the curtain. Thankfully, Hanna and the other speakers are unfailingly candid which helps with the goal of truly digging into her history.
Overall, The Punk Singer is equal parts pissed off and precocious. Hanna’s demure Valley Girl twang cuts through even when she’s speaking truth to power on serious issues like sexual abuse (or the media’s obsession with sexual abuse when trying to profile rebellious women), and the trail she blazed through her microphone is a significant one that should be talked about and celebrated more.
Whether the movie will resonate beyond those interested in punk rock, feminism, and the Riot grrrl movement (which is admittedly a pretty large crowd to begin with) is hard to say, but for those of us who were raised on Bikini Kill, Fugazi and fan zines — this is essential viewing.
The Upside: A compelling subject fully explored through intimate and public moments alike
The Downside: It’s a one-sided documentary, which makes it a bit insular
On the Side: This isn’t written down as official trivia anywhere, but there’s just no way that Joey Lauren Adams’ singing scene in Chasing Amy wasn’t somehow influenced by Kathleen Hanna. It had to have been.