Thursday, 22 May 2014
Sini Anderson’s documentary, The Punk Singer (2013) uncovers the true origins of nineties "girl power" and the birth of the Riot Grrl movement. Kathleen Hanna, co-founder of the movement and frontman of Bikini Kill is the titular singer with the film documenting her career from start to a surprisingly abrupt finish in 2005 when Hanna and her then band, Le Tigre’s radio silence made the loudest noise with her fans. Using vintage performance footage and interviews with band members, family, friends and fans, the film sets out to discover the cause that quietly shut the vociferous scream queen down.
Hanna’s rapid evolution from ambitious spoken word artist to punk singer is told through a series of stories from her childhood and teenage years that influenced Bikini Kill and their original material, which controversially alluded to issues such as child abuse and rape. At the time of the band’s conception, the media were reporting on the supposed death of feminism, thus starting a fire in the bellies of the passionate band members. Bikini Kill not only came armed with a visceral setlist, but their secret weapon was a powerful manifesto which through lyricism and performance saw the birth of the Riot Grrl, an army of outspoken feminists that burst out of the testosterone heavy grunge scene and brought feminism back from the brink.
Hanna increasingly became a big deal and as the figurehead of female empowerment, also became the target of a media backlash. Her life choices were widely criticised and assumptions were made on her personal life through the words used in Bikini Kill’s lyrics. Now residing in a lavish property with her husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, Hanna sheds a fresh perspective on her career and explains in brutal honesty, the complications that arose as she, the feminist artist, fell in love with a man who sang about women doing his laundry for him. As she plans to launch her new music incarnation, “the Julie Ruin”, Hanna reflects on the time with her second band Le Tigre and sheds light on her disappearance from the scene she created.
Fanzines, a topic discussed in the documentary were one of the many projects that gave the Riot Grrls a voice and director Anderson applies a similar cut and paste aesthetic to the narrative giving the film a frenetic and youthful energy. The soundtrack, as one would expect, is a cacophonous punk riot, it steadily pulsates throughout vintage footage of a young Hanna as a spoken word artist and in her early days as a performer. She sparkles with charisma, whilst the music provides authenticity and the evidence that this documentary was always just waiting to be made.
Context is provided through the perspective of, among many, fellow rock icons Kim Gordon and Joan Jett who through masked interview, attempt to characterise the enigma created by Bikini Kill thanks to a self imposed media blackout. Thankfully, Hanna’s career, her achievements and her raison d’etre are interesting enough to keep the documentary afloat without any moments of disruptive narcissism. Even her husband Horovitz, is kept at arms length, only showing the couple together in old homemade footage or photographs. When the couple speak of one another, they do so with great respect and adulation but with very little schmaltz as this film is not a fawning appreciation of a pop star, it’s about passion, determination and an influential legacy that was recently represented on the ski-masked faces of Pussy Riot and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012).
The arc of the tale leads to the abrupt stop in Hanna’s musical output but unlike other rockumentaries of the genre such as Hit So Hard (2011) or Pearl Jam Twenty (2011), where protagonists battle with personal demons or fight with major labels, the focus here is on self-control, Hanna’s most admirable trait. The Punk Singer is a rewarding and positive experience. Anderson delivers a fascinating account of the grunge era and an influential story of a role model who has the guts and spunk to inspire a whole new generation of Riot boys and Grrls.
OUT IN CINEMAS 23rd May 2014
Available on DVD 23rd June 2014
Review also published on Cinevue.