The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna
While Documentaries are their own well-defined genre and sub genres, the very best sub-sub-genre of these are films that escape their categorization and subject matter and form a new area of informative entertainment: those with stories and subjects that are a complete surprise, even in a milieu that we think we know about.
I grew up in the Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl 90’s. Bikini Kill formed in Olympia, Washington in 1990, and were among the many bands to emerge from the Seattle scene, alongside with Nirvana. Kathleen Hanna was a friend and contemporary of Kurt Cobain, who was a vocal male feminist, something that has been sadly, lost to much of what is idolized about him. I am also a lifelong Beastie Boys fan, who erupted from another coast and another world, NYC, via the 1986 emergence of that amazing album, Licence to Ill, which said nothing to girls, but yet, could not be ignored. And that was just the artwork. We never imagined these worlds would converge in a touching, timely documentary about love and art. I was a devotee of early 90’s bible (and still singular) Sassy Magazine, even by strange luck having had a chance to visit their New York offices at the height of their reign, and see the world of magazines I longed to enter but had no idea how to approach. We met some dynamic women, owning New York in comfortable wedge shoes. I’ll never forget you, Kim France.
In my imagination I pushed ahead to forge contacts, interned and found a life in 90’s journalism. But in fact, I was just there as an 18 year old, fairly inept chaperone for a Sassiest Girl in America finalist, my younger sister (a Canadian). My sister, a truly gifted writer and thinker at just 15, won the title which came with a cover, a tidy financial prize, whatever bragging rights came from a pre-internet and non stage parented existence, and the excitement of the recognition for that year. During our stay, we got into Limelight, chatted up Corey Feldman, and later missed our scheduled flight home. While my sister worked and competed in a strange, grueling final few days with four other great young minds, I got to play tourist, and was forever imprinted with New York and all the mystique and grit it still held then.
All this is to say that I was fairly well steeped in 90’s culture but was not fully immersed in the Riot Grrrl movement. This was a time of zines, underground bootlegs, and import records. I was fairly unaware of Kathleen Hanna’s particular importance as a figure of that moment, its female centred punk that was not apathetic but fueled with activism, and its ideals and effect in American cities which were much more politicized and politically active than ours. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that as a natural-born feminist in a non-sexist family it was all a given to me, and I nodded silently as I read my magazines. Toronto kids then had a certain privileged existence where we always thought we were as enlightened as New York, even though we kidded ourselves: bland Toronto stood in for New York in so many movies and had almost no global identity then. We were mostly white-bread and endlessly suburban. We were fully 20 years behind in many things. But Sassy helped propel us forward.
Like many STELLAR aspects of early 90’s culture, I assumed that this progress, this Sassy world, this Alternative musical landscape and forward movement for women and music was firm and could not be clawed back. I read my Naomi Wolf and my Naomi Klein and I was all about No Logo. How wrong I was. As we’ve argued in other areas of this magazine, the forces of Corporate Packaged Pop music would retaliate harshly to the organic music and cultural movements of that time, unleashing more and more plastic music with bigger budgets than ever before, pushing Alternative back to the margins where its largely stayed, making everyone not Revlon ad ready or with an instant brand built for sneaker pimping some sort of Indie poet who does it all for love and rarely for the money they deserve. Remember, in the 90’s selling out was an expression that really meant something. Integrity was a serious word and concept. Artists in major cities with healthy live scenes could afford some idealism for a while. But then the bottom fell out, and Riot Grrrls were replaced with faux-feminist Spice Girls, and Britney’s School Girl “uniform”.
The Punk Singer (2013, Directed by Sini Anderson, currently available on Netflix) fills in the blanks of whatever happened to Riot Grrrl’s Kathleen Hanna after Bikini Kill, and it’s startling. These pioneers did not enjoy the same success that Courtney Love, ever the borrower, enjoyed with the same ideas and connections she had through Hole. Through Kim Gordon, Kathleen met and fell in love with Beastie Boy (and my imaginary boyfriend) Adam Horovitz on tour, and they have amazing, touching footage that shows it in its first full bloom. This Riot girl was also a natural beauty, one who’s sunny, special glow was enough to get Courtney Love’s fists flying, as she signaled through her violent takeover, the end of Riot Grrrl.
The Grrrls and Boys had to grow up, alas. Astoundingly, the Beastie Boys became men, and men of enlightenment, all marrying strong, interesting, creative women. (Mike D has long been married to Tamra Davis, director of TV, music videos and films including the gorgeous Basquait: The Radiant Child, which will also be reviewed here in the coming weeks). In the intervening years, Kathleen Hanna continued to pursue various musical combinations (The very good Julie Ruin and Le Tigre) and solo projects, enjoying a long and devoted, low key, quite un-Hollywood marriage. Hanna has also been very ill for a number of years after contracting Lyme Disease, and the film shows her struggles and pain with the mysterious long term effects of this illness, the lack of medical support she’s had and the related strain that illness takes on a person. All the while, she’s continued to stay connected to her 90’s legacy and work and has a core of devoted fans who’ve stayed with her through it all.
The Punk Singer (the film and its subject) is everything pop film and pop music isn’t. It’s an authentic story about artists and life, and the unlikeliest, and most beautiful sort of marriage that touches the very marrow. It’s something very special that will have you reaching for your 90’s notebooks and remembering who you wanted to be then. It’s a film that will have resonance to young musicians and artists who’ve never heard of, but now see the potential of the Riot Grrrl movement, something that was good for both men and women, and all who value true equality in society. It’s an important cultural restoration of lost archival documents and footage, that worryingly sometimes don’t make it online where we now go for everything we call history.
When someone is linked strongly to one era and movement, they become fixed as an icon, separate from their earliest music (which is arguably the least interesting part of Hanna’s story). That static, brief, flickering image, is now out there, floating about online while real life goes on somewhere else. Where we aren’t, despite our hearts, girls and boys any longer, but aging men and women who go through the shittiest parts of life: illness, loss, and the deeper questions about personal legacy.
The Punk Singer is among the best and rarest genre-defying documentaries. Through the so-called (but never really) objective lens, it becomes an authentic love letter to a deserving subject. It’s riveting, surprising, and truly moving in ways that newcomers and casual viewers to the subject may enjoy even more than fans. It creates new fans and opens up new aspirations. It places nostalgia, legacy, and the beauty of youth in just the right context while giving respect to the realities of a life lived today, and to the very human and unglamourous challenges of getting older, and the beauty of maturity and self-acceptance. It’s a document made at a perfect moment about a very tough cultural time and age (40’s) when we have the difficult task of looking back at a life lived, and to what lies ahead, and neither is as certain as we once thought. Through art, and expression, we carry on.
The Punk Singer is part of our EPIC ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives.