The Punk Singer

December 6, 2013

in Movies

Film (2013)

Directed by Sini Anderson

Brattle Theater
Cambridge, MA
December 6-12, 2013

Produced by Sini Anderson, Gwen Bialic, Tamra Davis, Rachel Dengiz, Erin Owens, Alan Oxman
Cinematography by Jennie Jeddry, Moira Morel
Film Editing by Jessica Hernández, Bo Mehrad

With Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Tavi Gevinson, Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker, Jennifer Baumgardner, Lynn Breedlove, Johanna Fateman, Jocelyn Samson, Kathryn Wilcox

Kathleen Hanna in 'The Punk Singer'

Kathleen Hanna
in “The Punk Singer”
Photo: IFC Films

A portrait of Kathleen Hanna, who emerged as a feminist punk rocker, leader of the band Bikini Kill, and voice of the riot grrrl movement in the early 1990s in the Pacific Northwest.

Inspired by feminist writer Kathy Acker, Hanna originally wanted to be an author. Advised that the sung word traveled further than the printed one, she started a band, despite not knowing much about music. Neither, apparently, did her bandmates, but somehow they prevailed and began to make a considerable name for themselves as Bikini Kill.

According to the numerous accounts of friends and observers, Hanna had an unrivaled power to seduce audiences, conveying the force of her personality through her intensely passionate vocalizations.

Many of them are, true to punk, raucous and rant-like, but genuine. The edges are coarse and the harmonics of the music are secondary to the urge and declamation of the message; in this case, it is a continuously unfolding articulation by an artist dedicated to a feminist mission.

Rough hewn rather than finely attuned, this sort of noble musical primitivism becomes primordially accessible to those for whom it speaks, its urges direct and its messages clear.

Kathleen Hanna’s early literary inspiration, Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997), became associated with the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s through her writings, among them Tarantula (1973) and Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978).

Kathy Acker, Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels

Despite her intensity and anger in performance, Hanna, in personal interview, is charmingly straightforward, and full of not-put-on self-effacement. She seems genuinely humble and decent about the intent of her work and of her own artistic boundaries and limitations.

Kathleen Hanna in 'The Punk Singer'

Kathleen Hanna
in “The Punk Singer”
Photo: IFC Films

The film creates its own internal drama by initially asking why Hanna quits singing in the late 1990s, despite her apparent continuing artistic and political passions. More or less structuring itself around this focus, the story eventually gets fleshed out, and the question is answered.

In the end, however, the posing of the question early on in this way seems a bit of a ruse. There are other, more subtle, dramas that play into Hanna’s life and career, and the film might as easily have been straightforward about its big secret from the beginning without losing a beat. As well, it holds her romantic life in some suspense, which, in this case is oddly interesting because of its unexpectedness, but would have been just as interesting without the added suspense.

Contextualizing Hanna’s work, telling a bit more about the punk rock movement and how Hanna fit in with other feminist elements, would have provided supplemental weight that could have made these dramas important, though not such focal, features. Told more as an element of cultural history in more explicit context, this interesting portrait of an individual punk rocker could have borne a more emblematic role for the movement as a whole.

Post viewing analysis - contains spoilers
The big secret about why Hanna quits performing is that she gets sick. Eventually, she is diagnosed with late stage Lyme Disease, for which she is treated and from which she gradually recovers. It is a dramatic turn of events in her life and career, but, just as easily, it could have been portrayed straightforwardly, without all the narrative hype.

In the relationship department – despite what seemed to be a likely “girl only” orientation, Hanna falls in love with, and marries – and remains married to – Adam Horovitz, one of the members of the punk band The Beastie Boys. Again, the film is a bit cagey about revealing this as part of its attempt to dramatize Hanna’s life, but it would have been perfectly interesting without all the drama.

– BADMan

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