One of the most energetic and iconoclastic aesthetic/political movements in the history of popular expression, 1970s punk nevertheless left many long-entrenched attitudes virtually undisturbed by its vitriolic passage. In some ways, the arrival of the hyper-aggressive “mosh pit” during the 1980s may even have exacerbated certain misogynist tendencies within the culture by recklessly detonating masculine anger at punk/hardcore clubs around the world. Idealized as seething cauldrons of rebellion that would help to boil off the excrescences of an unjust social order, these shows often wound up replicating the worst power dynamics the larger society had on tap – as many female punks who got burned in the process can testify. Clearly, someone needed to step up – not just onto the stage (which had been done), but on behalf of every single woman in the audience. The Punk Singer creates an extraordinarily lucid and heartfelt portrait of a person who responded to that call – and thereby changed the context of reception for uncompromising female expression (both at the individual and collective levels) forever.
Director Sini Anderson uses revelatory conversations with Hanna’s peers, old video clips, fanzine imagery and a wealth of intimate new interview footage to piece together the painfully human story of a woman who crashed through so many barriers during the past two decades that she often seemed invulnerable. The documentary eschews its subject’s early life, for the most part (although the ramifications of Hanna’s childhood experiences are clearly felt throughout the piece), catching up with her as an undergraduate spoken word artist at Washington’s Evergreen College. Anderson captures the paradoxically penned-in parameters of the early 1990s punk scene, which promised so much and delivered so little to women and feminists of all kinds. Without ever undervaluing the importance and the quality of Bikini Kill’s music (a welcome selection of which makes its way onto the soundtrack), the film argues that Hanna’s band’s most revolutionary contribution came on the front lines of performance. Although it would be hard to deny that this punk singer did become an idol to many (including this reviewer), it was her insistence that the women in the audience must finally be allowed to participate fully and without fear in the thrilling rite of punk partisanship that truly ignited the “riot grrrl” movement. By bravely clearing the mosh pits of testosterone-fueled violence, Hanna gave birth to a functioning model of Third Wave Feminist musical protest.
The Punk Singer does not end with the demise of Bikini Kill in 1997. In fact, Anderson pays very careful attention to an often-neglected item on Hanna’s curriculum vitae – the “self-titled” solo album Julie Ruin. Recorded entirely in her bedroom, this intimate work reveals a great deal about the artist’s ever-evolving aesthetic and political objectives, unveiling a more vulnerable, but no less focused, portrait of feminist subjectivity (and feminist inter-subjectivity) on the cusp of the 21st century. The remainder of the film deals with the rise of Hanna’s second major touring act (the electroclash supergroup Le Tigre) and the development of unexpected complications that began to throw this irrepressible woman’s world-historical mission off track in 2005. For those (like the fans interviewed at the beginning of the doc who ask, in a sort-of-joking-but-not-really tone: “why have you forsaken us?”) who grew up leaning on Kathleen Hanna’s strength and indomitable resolve, the final sequences of The Punk Singer will be harrowing indeed. Anderson’s caring but questioning camera forces both Hanna and her audiences to come to terms with the more confining aspects of the singer’s superheroic aura – and hopefully points the way to a future enlivened by a more fully interdependent, but no less dynamic, iteration of the quintessential punk singer.
The Punk Singer made its Canadian premiere at the Royal Cinema on April 29. It will show again at the Hart House Theatre on May 1 (8 pm) and at the Scotiabank Theatre on May 3 (6:30 pm).
Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.