The Punk Singer


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Punk Singer
"If you are a fan of Kathleen and her work, this film is a must-see."

In the early Nineties, Kathleen Hanna made a dramatic impact on music and popular culture as the lead singer of Bikini Kill, becoming a founder of the Riot Grrrl movement. In the late Nineties, she founded Le Tigre and released the highly acclaimed solo album Julie Ruin. In the early part of the new millenium, however, she faded from view. This documentary reviews her career and gives her the chance to explain what happened. It's the tale of a seemingly unstoppable force abruptly confronted by the limits of the flesh, but it's a tale which is far from over.

By the time Hanna began her career, punk had been so successfully tamed by the mainstream that anybody with an interest in music knew someone who was in a punk band. None of those bands had very much to say, however, and their members were almost exclusively male. Kathleen, a self-described angry little girl, broke the mould. The intriguing thing is, it was almost accidental. This film opens with rare footage of one of her early stage appearances, performing spoken word poetry. She's good - really good - but somebody told her that nobody listens to poetry. If she wanted to be heard, she would have to be in a band.

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Although Kathleen went on to create music on her own terms, this film shows how that kind of packaging and limiting of art went on throughout her early career,, with Bikini Kill's songs ad personal stories constantly twisted to fit as acceptable media image - that of poor, troubled young women damaged by sexual abuse, whose aberrant behaviour could therefore be excused, pitied, written off - women whose voices didn't have to be taken seriously. Careful not to do the same thing, the film features interviews not only with Kthless herself but also with the likes of Joan Jett, Johanna Fateman, Corin Tucker - and, of course, Beastie Boy husband Adam Horowitz, a much more interesting figure in his late forties than he ever was in his youth. It's a reminder that all the most impressive punk performers have been interested in art and ideas - Genesis P-orridge, Jello Biafra, even Sid Vicious, who dressed as he did not to shock but to try and rob certain symbols of their power. The pretence that it's only about causing offence - and not about grabbing people's attention for a reason - has made it a difficult medium to work in, but here Kathleen demonstrates an instinctive understanding of how to navigate changing public moods - ultimately, she proved a better media player than those who tried to contain her.

With its awareness of these larger narratives raising it above the standard of the average music documentary, The Punk Singer also allows director Sini Anderson (also a poet and performer, in another life) to demonstrate considerable talent of her own. Although a little too slow and repetitive in places, the film makes up for this with visual inventiveness - not in-your-face stuff but smart, well chosen imagery that dds considerably to its atmosphere and to its sense of business - there can be no blank walls in the story of such a busy life. At least not until later, when the mood shifts.

If you are a fan of Kathleen and her work, this film is a must-see. If not, you may well still find it intriguing, and it's certainly educational.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2014
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A look at the life musician Kathleen Hanna, who formed the punk band Bikini Kill.
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Director: Sini Anderson

Starring: Joan Jett, Adam Horovitz, Kathleen Hanna, Jennifer Baumgardner, Lynn Breedlove, Johanna Fateman

Year: 2013

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US

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