Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna
Directed by: Sini Anderson.
As the lead singer of Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, Kathleen Hanna inspired many and infuriated almost as many. She was a beautiful young woman, a former stripper, who talked like a Valley Girl, was not above using her sexuality to draw attention to herself and her band – who was also a committed feminist, who sang about topics like rape and incest. She also had an undeniable stage presence – the clips of the band in concert are a highlight of the film, as Hanna is full of energy – and like all great “front men” she was able to weave a spell over the audience.

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna was directed by Sini Anderson, who is obviously a fan of Hanna’s. While the film acknowledges that there were many people who questioned Hanna back then – some harshly – the documentary doesn’t really interview them to get their point of view. They exist only as a few snippets of articles that the film shows, and in the memory of Hanna and those who know and love her. The film doesn’t really try to be objective about Hanna or her beliefs – in that way, it isn’t so much like the fanzines and newsletters Hanna published and gave out at their shows – pure advocacy for the cause. While including some of the naysayers may have made The Punk Singer a more complete – and perhaps complex – documentary, I’m not sure it would have been much better. This is basically Kathleen Hanna in her own words – and taken as purely that, the film is very good.

The movie is a fairly standard musician biopic documentary – telling about Hanna’s rise from obscurity into semi-stardom. I say semi-stardom, because while Bikini Kill got a lot of press when it was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-1990s, the band never really made all that much money. They were a sort of offshoot on the grunge movement in Seattle – Hanna was friends with Kurt Cobain, which may be why Courtney Love cold cocked her at Lollapalooza one year (according to Hanna, it was completely unprovoked – which makes sense since Courtney Love is insane). The band forms despite the fact that none of them really know how to play their instruments that well (they learn on the job) – and Hanna had never been a lead singer before (she was a slam poet, but someone advised her if she wanted attention, to join a band – no one listens to poetry).

What is different is Hanna herself. In the poem that opens the movies she says she’s a “woman who won’t shut up” – and that’s a fairly good description of her. She has opinions, and she lets everyone know what they are. Her lyrics are not subtle – but in your face, much like her singing style – although they do have a strange beauty to them at times. The songs are not always pleasant – they’re not always brilliant – but they do contain a strange poetry.

The film is equally fascinating in dealing with Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill life – her solo project, Julie Ruin, which she recorded herself in her bedroom, followed by another band – Le Tigre – and then a long, undiagnosed illness, before coming back with The Julie Ruin. Hanna may not quite be a household name – but her work has left a mark. She is a woman who still believes in feminism when so many people question whether it still exists (it does) and whether it’s still important (it is). And she’s going to sing about it no matter what anyone thinks.

My biggest problem with the doc is the same one I have with many musician docs – so perhaps I’m the only one who feels this way – and that is that Anderson rarely (if ever) lets a whole song play. I had to hit Youtube after the movie to hear full songs by Hanna in her various bands, because I only got a small flavor for her work by watching the documentary. That’s a shame – because some of the music is great – and to me, if you’re going to celebrate the life of a musician, you should celebrate their music. Scorsese gets this, which is why his docs on Dylan and George Harrison contain more music than most other docs like it (and perhaps that’s why they’re both 4 hours long). It’s a shame this documentary doesn’t allow the songs to play in full. Hanna may not be Dylan – but she has something to say worth listening to.

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