Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontperson Kathleen Hanna gets profiled in "The Punk Singer." Credit: Alesia Exum
‘The Punk Singer’ Director: Sini Anderson Genre: Documentary Rating: NR 3 (out of 5) Globes
There’s every reason Kathleen Hanna deserves a hagiographic documentary. Hanna fronted Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, helped create the “riot grrrl” movement, gave Kurt Cobain the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and never once wavered in her feminism nor diluted her beliefs for mainstream success, even as she marginally achieved it. For its first half, “The Punk Singer,” Sini Anderson’s film on her, is more than a mere profile. It captures not only Hanna but the period she was instrumental in crafting.
Hanna was part of third-wave feminism, which tried to save a movement that had been perceived (or at least loudly alleged) by many to be dead. Her genius was taking what had initially been spoken word pieces and marry them to a punk groove, at a time when the sound was synonymous with testosterone and dangerous mosh pits. With Bikini Kill, she and her bandmates (including a male guitarist, Billy Karren) sought to sell their message through head-bobbing music. Hanna performed with the word “SLUT” written across her exposed midriff and openly and angrily engaged with hostile concertgoers, all while touting (believably, in this case) that she had no interest in making money.
“The Punk Singer” gains much from its insider status, with chats with contemporaries, like the members of Sleater Kinney, and those who preceded her (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett). But the film also speaks to the power of spreading the word through palatable means. Bikini Kill and later the more polished Le Tigre struck a balance between message and pop, albeit one whose message kept the work from being too popular. They were always just as big as they needed to be without losing control over their art to corporate overlords.
The second half of the film is more emotional but also more problematic, structurally. Rather than explore Hanna’s legacy — perhaps commenting on the way the “riot grrrl” movement, in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, was co-opted by fake-feminism, such as the “Charlie’s Angels” relaunch — it delves into her personal life. Hanna hasn’t performed live since 2005, and one reason for that is her having to battle Lyme Disease. “The Punk Singer” is her coming-out in this respect, and it’s moving seeing her and husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, deal with brutal tests and medication. But it also winds up distracting from a film that could have made an even larger argument for Hanna’s influence today and weigh in on the current state of feminism. Instead, it’s largely stuck in the past.