Directed by Sini Anderson
There are an abundance of fascinating stories to be told in the new documentary The Punk Singer: the evolution of feminist punk rock in the 1990s, the inspiration that Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna created among her fellow musicians as well as young women looking up to her as a role model, and the dramatic shift in Hanna’s life once she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. This should be a boon to the film—better to have too many stories to tell in a feature documentary than not enough—but ends up making the venture mildly frustrating for not being able to deeply explore all potential avenues.
Hanna’s career, as detailed by director Sini Anderson, has spanned a couple of decades and many generational shifts. Though hers may not be a household name, she’s arguably a lightning rod in the music scene of the 1990s, from helping kickstart the riot grrrl movement to inadvertently inspiring the late Kurt Cobain to come up with the title “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Just considering some of the people who appear in talking-head interviews in The Punk Singer, such as Joan Jett and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, it’s clear that Hanna left behind a massive footprint on the ever-expanding music scene emanating from the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps, then, the real issue with the construction of The Punk Singer is the tease early on about Hanna having left behind the stage in 2005. The interviewees are asked if they knew why she quit, and they all seem to be clueless. Then, an hour later (into an 80-minute documentary), the answer is revealed.
Hanna’s battle with Lyme disease was, until this film’s release, kept secret. She recounts that her explanation to her bandmates in the group Le Tigre—that she had nothing left to say in her music—was a bald-faced lie, something she said because she didn’t want her body’s breakdown to dictate her choices. (Her reasoning is coupled with emotion, but the impact is muted, because it’s clear that she recorded a few interviews in different locations, as opposed to a single, lengthy interview climaxing with this revelation.) This admission is the most arresting and poignant in the whole film; her honesty here is impressive, but the last section of The Punk Singer winds up being much more interesting than the run-up to Hanna’s secret. Throughout the first hour, it’s hard not to wonder how much longer it will take for Hanna or the film to explain why she quit music for so long, essentially shutting all but her most important friends and family to focus on battling a disease that’s more devastating than AIDS. Once she does explain what happened to her, and why she kept it private until now, one can only wish that more of the film was devoted to her struggle. Arguably, there’s a full-length documentary in that struggle, as much as there’s one in detailing the riot grrrl movement, or one in specifically detailing Hanna’s life as an indie rock star.
As such, The Punk Singer has a strangely fractured quality, with the first three-quarters resembling something akin to a tougher but embracing episode of “Behind the Music,” and the final quarter being something bleaker altogether. Those assembled to discuss Hanna’s career alongside her do so in glowing terms, acknowledging the difficulties she had in getting Bikini Kill to be taken as seriously as male-dominated bands of the era, but also celebrating her for having overcome such massive obstacles. There is only the one hurdle she hasn’t totally cleared, the now-neverending battle against Lyme disease. Everything in the world of music appears to have come easily to her, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her brusque, defiant attitude.
The Punk Singer is as much a love letter to Kathleen Hanna as it is to the many people who have found her a source of rebellious joy and inspiration in the last two decades. (It is not terribly surprising to find out that this film was, in part, funded via Kickstarter just over two years ago.) Once it shifts gears and delves into Hanna’s self-imposed hiatus of the last few years, the film mostly does itself a disservice. Learning about her illness and her daily fight against its ravaging effect on her body is fascinating, but it appears at the tail end of a film that champions her success at fighting the outer world. To see Hanna as somewhat helpless against the inner world, of a sort, is a dark and depressing note to end on, specifically for a film that’s otherwise amped-up and excited about its subject’s power and righteous rage at the machine.
— Josh Spiegel