What can you hope for in a rock doc? To learn something about the musician and/or movement, get a feel for the music, and to be entertained. The Punk Singer: A Film about Kathleen Hanna delivers on most expectations, but also includes a very human element. I am not ashamed to admit that there was a point during this film when I identified so heavily with the subject that I was moved to tears.
For me, and if I can speak for other punks of my age group, the Riot Grrrl movement was something that happened to the generation after us. It also got caught up in the gigantic wave of Grunge, getting lost in the undertow. This documentary, directed by Sini Anderson, seriously schooled me on the feminist art punk movement that came out of Portland and birthed Bikini Kill, Hanna’s first and most well-known band. Even people with their heads stuck in the sand couldn’t miss their massive hit, “Rebel Girl,” which went on to be covered by a number of punk luminaries.
A lot of music documentaries, and I have seen more than my share, either cut off the songs too early or let them drag on too long. The Punk Singer strikes a comfortable balance, playing enough of the song along with a montage of clips from shows over the years to keep visual interest, then fading the song into the background as the talking heads take over.
And there are a lot of talking heads. The more recognizable names like Joan Jett and Kim Gordon are there for a reason, not just because the film-makers grabbed any rock star they could get. Of course there are the usual band members, but there are also a few mystery guests. Maybe I just missed the subtitle the first time, or maybe they just expect us to be cool enough to know who everyone is, but I could have used a few reminders. That’s pretty nit-picky, which just highlights what a well-made film this is. Maybe it is all, Kathleen, Kathleen, Kathleen! But the film is about her. I find her likeable enough, funny enough and smart enough to not get bored.
Besides following the Riot Grrrl movement, the storyline includes interesting studies of the media’s influence on music, the spatial politics of the audience, mixing mediums, and the introspective and interpersonal aspects of making music. Politically, The Punk Singer fills a gap in the feminist punk movement. You can see a direct correlation between Kathleen Hanna and Pussy Riot, even down to the colorful ski masks.
The film drops a few hints about Hanna’s mysterious disappearance from the stage in 2005. Near the end of the film, the cause is revealed, and the remainder of the film focuses primarily on Hanna’s personal life and struggles. It is both moving and intimate. Since they chose to use it to build suspense, I won’t put a spoiler in.
The Punk Singer is available on cable On Demand, Amazon streaming, and other streaming services. It is still making its rounds on the big screen, and will be coming to Los Angeles January 3rd at The Downtown Independent. If you consider yourself any kind of music aficionado, feminist, or punk rock historian you need to see this movie. Boys can sit in the front of the theater, I suppose.
Previously on The LA Beat: The Punk Singer Riot Grrrl Doc Screens in LA
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