Movie Review: The Punk Singer
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
As the excellent documentary “The Punk Singer” demonstrates, to see Kathleen Hanna with Bikini Kill was to see a force of nature: There she is, dancing like she was in front of her bedroom mirror, howling into the mic, lecturing, hectoring and encouraging the young punks who adored her or found her outspoken feminism threatening.
Not for nothing is Hanna considered one of the most charismatic, galvanizing and controversial rock figures of the 1990s, the very embodiment of third-wave feminism (and the riot grrl movement) for a generation.
But in 2005, after making three albums with the electronic music act Le Tigre, Hanna virtually vanished from public life. “The Punk Singer,” from director Siri Anderson, explores why she left and gives us a strong look at both Hanna the woman and Hanna the icon.
After a troubling teenhood in suburban Maryland, Hanna — who sometimes looks like a dead-ringer for Elizabeth Taylor — headed off to the famously progressive Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash.
A devout feminist into spoken word, Hanna opens the film delivering a spoken piece; you can see Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye in the background, listening intently, becoming a fan for life.
But a chance encounter with her hero Kathy Acker changed it up. “Nobody ever listened to me my whole life,” Hanna said, talking about why she wrote and performed.
Start a band, Acker replied. Boom: Punk rock history.
The funny thing is that Bikini Kill was making waves in the underground just as the mainstream was finding Nirvana, so Hanna found herself under an amount of press scrutiny.
There are few things scarier in American public life than dangerous fame without the protection of wealth; this little punk rock band bore the burden of proof for a movement that operated more as an ideal for living that something spearheaded by one person.
It was a heady time to be a progressive punk, and Anderson weaves together a strong story, using talking heads — including Joan Jett, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney and Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz, better known as Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys, who comes off as an exceptionally sweet guy — for context and including stellar concert footage.
After Bikini Kill split in 1997, Hanna moved to New York, made a no-fi solo album called “Julie Ruin” and started Le Tigre, an electronic act focused more on joy and dance than rage. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘What are the good things?’” Hanna says.
Even folks who know Hanna’s music forward and backward will likely learn a great deal. Hanna is a stronger multi-media artist than most folks realize. Her solo album was a collage not unlike her visual art. Her Evergreen-era fashion show is striking, and she is clearly the sort of person who is constantly creating, be it public or private.
But as the band went on, Hanna’s health declined: dizziness, heart issues, loss of vocal pitch, exhaustion. Again and again, she and Horovitz looked for answers. Again and again, they came up short.
Hanna eventually did get a diagnosis, and Austinites saw her new band, also called the Julie Ruin, at Fun Fun Fun Fest. But since Anderson started interviewing Hanna in 2010, before Hanna herself knew, the reveal is best left to the film, even if it can easily be Googled.
And for those who adored Bikini Kill back then, the lump in your throat may be sizable (confession: you can totally see the back of my head in the crowd at the 1992 show outside of the Supreme Court. I have short brown hair, you can’t miss me). “The Punk Singer” shows you that even the toughest, most heroic artists sometimes need a break, but the battle is always worth getting up and fighting again.