Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer is a double-sided coin, with one face that’s somber and another that’s uplifting. Watching the film’s subject, feminist activist and musician Kathleen Hanna, as she takes center stage in archive footage, it’s impossible not to feel inspired by her energy and indomitability; for most of the film, Hanna gives the impression of being an unstoppable force, though anyone familiar with her life and times already knows this to be untrue without having to watch the entire picture. And so The Punk Singer exists as a work that’s simultaneously joyful and tragic, though that contradiction only makes Anderson’s film feel even more transparent and honest.
For those to whom Hanna’s name is foreign currency, The Punk Singer fashions a quick, effective bio on her history as the singer of punk band Bikini Kill (as well as electroclash band Le Tigre, and her current project, The Julie Ruin) before launching into greater realms of detail: this isn’t a Behind the Music special about one band, but a piercing glance at one iconic female artist’s contributions to the third-wave feminist Riot Grrrl movement – a dyed-in-the-wool punk philosophy devoted toward proliferating diversity of feminine expression – and what all of that meant for generations of women searching for an aesthetic through which to voice their sentiment and perspectives on the myriad social and community-based issues staring them down in the cultural gestalt of 1990’s America.
Individual mileage may vary regarding punk, both as an ideology and as a musical category, but even for the non-mohawked in the audience, the gravitational pull of Hanna’s personality is undeniable. She’s a dynamo of defiance, someone whose voice arcs above the noise, forcing you to pay attention; to paraphrase the spoken word verse she recites toward the start of the film, she’s someone you just can’t silence, and she refuses to let her statements go unheard. From the word go, it’s impossible not to respect her drive, and it’s immediately clear why so many women responded so strongly to her music and why even today songs like “Rebel Girl” still matter: Hanna, whether she intended to or not, wound up providing a megaphone for projecting feminine frustrations with male-dominated status quos.
To honor that, Anderson and Hanna populate The Punk Singer with a dearth of masculine perspective: among the many, many people who offer testimonials through the documentary, only three men make appearances in front of the camera to speak about Hanna and her work. Maybe you can’t make a film about her without bringing Bikini Kill guitarist Billy Karren into the frame, and it’s foolish to expect that Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz – Hanna’s beau of more than a decade – wouldn’t show up to put in his two cents. But they’re small, Y chromosomal fish in a sea that includes Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, Hanna’s Bikini Kill and Le Tigre compatriots, and a cavalcade of zine editors and music writers.
The message is obvious: The Punk Singer is a movie about women, by women, for women. Something about that feels monumental in terms of sheer achievement, and also completely logical at the same time. Of course Anderson would pick women to talk both frankly and emotionally about what Hanna symbolizes for them. Who better to comment on the ways she shaped conversations about feminism and the changes she brought about specifically in the punk scene? Hanna compelled the men at Bikini Kill concerts to move to the back, allowing women to head to the front and enjoy a space made safe from the physical dangers of moshing and thrashing; that might seem like a small gesture, but in its own way it’s subversive and demonstrative of how deep Hanna’s convictions run.
If all of this sounds like a fight the power, misandrist slamdance, well, you might be one of the many guys who sent Hanna hate mail during the height of Bikini Kill’s notoriety. Anderson strives to articulate just how strongly Riot Grrrl thought centered on justified female discontent, yet she also points out that Hanna’s not an exclusionist; according to The Punk Singer, the importance of intersectionality can’t be ignored, either, and in that respect, Hanna’s the kind of human being anybody can admire no matter their gender. If Hanna did indeed hate men at one time or another, the person she is today invites participation rather than division, and that may well be the key to Anderson’s film. You don’t have to be a girl to like girl bands or care about girl problems.
All of this washes over that aforementioned third male interviewee, though, and when he makes his appearance, the entire tone of The Punk Singer changes from something stirring to something that’s mournful. He’s also the least punk rock person in the picture, but that’s okay: Leo Galland, MD, is the man who finally diagnosed Hanna with late stage Lyme disease, finally putting a name to the seemingly endless array of health issues she wound up juggling after cutting her time with Le Tigre in the mid-2000s. Suddenly, in one short burst of dialogue, Hanna, whose humanity Anderson effortlessly captures throughout the film, becomes human and vulnerable in a completely different way; suddenly, The Punk Singer becomes a tale tinged with a sense of loss.
Seeing her brought so low feels heartbreaking after spending an hour getting to know her; Anderson deserves enormous credit for acquainting her audience to Hanna by condensing her life story into under an hour and a half of running time. Without that, maybe the revelations imparted on us wouldn’t strike quite as strongly, though what we see of Hanna’s struggle with illness works on more universal levels, too. Yet the takeaway here isn’t one of sorrow – Hanna has begun performing again as she recovers, and in time, despite how much she’s changed in two decades of raging against the machine, she may be just as vital a voice as ever. Here’s hoping. The world needs more Kathleen Hannas to stand beside the Katniss Everdeens.