For those not in the know about ’90s feminist rock, "The Punk Singer" is a fun and energetic introduction to the dynamic Kathleen Hanna, the most important rock star you’ve never heard of.
The first footage that director Sini Anderson shows is of Hanna in 1991, in a spoken-word performance at a bar in Olympia, Wash. — where she was then a student at The Evergreen State College. The scene then shifts to an interview with Hanna, in which she talks about meeting an author who suggested that if she wanted to get her message out, she should ditch the spoken-word scene and start a punk band.
‘The Punk Singer’
A messy, energetic documentary profile of Kathleen Hanna, rock star and founder of the “riot grrrl” movement.
Where » Tower Theatre.
When » Opens Friday, Jan. 3, 2014.
Rating » Not rated, but probably R for language and sexual content.
Running time » 81 minutes.
Hanna gathered two female friends, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, and a male guitarist, Billy Karren, and formed Bikini Kill. The band became a centerpiece of the "riot grrrl" movement, thanks to Hanna’s fiery feminist lyrics and a manifesto she wrote espousing "third wave feminism."
Anderson chronicles Bikini Kill’s seven-year existence and its influence. Some of the influence was direct, inspiring bands like Sleater-Kinney. Some influence was indirect, as shown by the story involving Vail and her friend Kurt Cobain, when Vail spray-painted the message "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" on the Nirvana frontman’s apartment building — and sparking the idea for the song that became Nirvana’s groundbreaking first single.
Hanna, shown in a series of candid interviews at her home, talks about her career with Bikini Kill and beyond. She talks about her feminism ideals, her difficult upbringing, the condescending way the media portrays women and the challenge of being a feminist and falling in love. (The movie’s depiction of Hanna’s enduring relationship with The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz — they met in 1997 and married in 2006 — gives the film an endearing sweetness.)
The latter sections of the film deal with Hanna’s later musical work — her electronic solo album "Julie Ruin" and her political dance band Le Tigre — and the heartbreaking reason that she stopped performing in 2005.
Anderson also collects a wealth of interviews from other artists — Joan Jett, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and others — who speak as admirers of Hanna’s message and witnesses to her place in music history.
The results are messy, real and raw, which turns out to be fitting. Through it all, Hanna transcends the iconic status of the film’s title to reveal herself as a complex human being who’s more than the sum of her press clippings.
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