AUSTIN, TX: Early in The Punk Singer, the terrific new documentary by Sini Anderson, Kathleen Hanna remembers being asked why she wanted to write. “Because nobody has ever listened to me, my entire life.” Her work burns with that kind of intensity, with an insistence that she — and the things she had to say — had importance, value, meaning. That same intensity is present in The Punk Singer, which is both a captivating personal story and a history of a moment — as the best rock documentaries are.
As the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna was instrumental to the formation and proliferation of the riot grrrl movement in the early ’90s and beyond. She was a million things at once: tough, intelligent, angry, defiantly sexy, funny, all bound up in a bundle of energy and fury that seemed less presented on stage than unleashed. And then, in 2005, she just stopped. “Why has she forsaken us?” someone asks early on. “What did we do that was so bad?”
This gives director Anderson the opportunity to make not only a music doc, but a mystery; Hanna’s self-imposed exile is something to be explored and understood, or at least explained. But that comes later. First up are the “origin stories,” as Hanna calls them, of her childhood, her years at Evergreen State College in Washington, and the notion of combustibly fusing punk music and feminism.
“Every show we played was like a war,” she remembers, and not just in the confrontational lyrics — she got rough with the moshing masculine members of her audience, enacting the riot grrrl philosophy in real life by insisting on “girls to the front” at Bikini Kill’s gigs.
Nailing the balance between history and personality is a tricky business for music documentaries, but Anderson gets it right. She tells Hanna’s story while situating it within the movement, telling the important stories (her connection to Kurt Cobain, the band’s “media blackout,” etc.), talking to the people you want to hear from (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Jennifer Baumgardner, Girls to the Front author Sara Marcus).
But Anderson also manages to make us feel (over the course of a relatively brief running time) that we know Kathleen Hanna, as much as you can know someone from watching a movie about them. Loads of archival footage (and electrifying performance clips) are supplemented by plenty of new interviews, with the subject talking candidly about her life, her music, and her unlikely romance with Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. That section of the film is particularly charming, a love story dropped in where you least expect it.
Hanna talks about feeling as though she were running out of gas creatively, in a way that is heartbreaking; this is someone who lives to communicate, to create, and we feel the loss. That goes triple for her semi-retirement, of which she says, “I didn’t want to face the fact that I was really sick.” But she was, and she talks about the Lyme disease diagnosis she received in 2010 with admirable candor as well (aided by some truly harrowing home movies). These scenes are tough to watch — not just because they show someone in pain, but because we’re not used to seeing Hanna so vulnerable.
The Punk Singer moves fast, but it isn’t shallow; Anderson covers a lot of ground here, but none of it glancingly (and don’t worry if you’re a novice to her work — I certainly didn’t know her as well as I should have). We get close to Hanna, and root for her, so when we see her first live performance in years, it’s genuinely exciting — particularly when she goes into that distinctive, infectious bounce, at which point all is right with the world.
The Punk Singer is playing this week at the SXSW Film Festival.