The whole point of being American is being able to reinvent oneself.
The Punk Singer, a documentary directed by performance artist and poet Sini Anderson (with the advice and consent of Tamra Davis, whose background includes directing mainstream Hollywood films and cutting-edge music videos), tracks the trajectory of Kathleen Hanna, the All-American Riot Grrrl who, after fronting the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and the feminist pop band Le Tigre, seemingly dropped out of sight in 2005, disappearing (we imagined) into a kind of superluxe rock-stardomesticity with her husband, the Beastie Boys’ Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz.
The Punk Singer, which reveals the truth about that withdrawal, seems timed to coincide with Hanna’s re-emergence with her new band, The Julie Ruin, which released its first album in September, but the film aims to be something other than a publicity complement or inspiring comeback story. It marries a do-it-yourself aesthetic with professional aspiration, using archival footage and better-than-the-usual-suspects talking head commentary to tell the compelling if incomplete story of one under appreciated artist.
Hanna, with green eyes and dark bangs that presented as a sort of punk Liz Taylor, was a product of an uneasy childhood, with a mother she describes as “sadistic” and a father who, she says, was at times “sexually inappropriate” and often indifferent. (He did not, Hanna stresses, rape her, as was widely reported in the early ’90s, when the mainstream media began to pick up on the grungy noise coming out of the Pacific Northwest.) She became politically initiated at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where she met one of her idols, the feminist novelist Kathy Acker, who told her that more people go to see bands than spoken-word performances.
And while Bikini Kill was - at least in the beginning - culpable to the oft-hurled charge that they hadn’t mastered their instruments, they became one of the most influential American bands of the late 20th century, and were one of the prime influences on Hanna’s friend Kurt Cobain. She recounts how, after a lively evening, she graffittied the phrase“Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the wall of his apartment. He later adapted the line to his purposes; she later was sucker-punched by Courtney Love.
But while Bikini Kill was well-known enough to tour nationally and developed a cult following, its combination of feminist politics and transgressive attitude was never intended as a business plan. And sick of what they saw as distortions and sensationalism, the band stopped doing interviews. The inevitable breakup came in 1997, and after releasing a remarkable solo record in 1998, Hanna formed Le Tigre, which carried on the feminist politics of Bikini Kill in the context of electronic pop music.
It might be a spoiler to reveal what caused Hanna to prematurely retire from the spotlight in 2005, but while the issue is serious, it’s hardly scandalous. Anderson keeps her film moving, relying almost exclusively on feminine voices to tell Hanna’s story. And while that might seem a little arbitrary - I was thinking that we might have benefited from a word from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore - it’s consonant with the Riot Grrrl ethos: Girls to the front!
The Punk Singer 88 Cast: Documentary, with Kathleen Hanna Director: Sini Anderson Rating: Unrated Running time: 80 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 12/06/2013
Print Headline: Punk Singer