Girls to the front.
Kathleen Hanna's a force: a squall onstage, a powerhouse in life. The frontwoman of '90s punk band Bikini Kill, late '90s electropop group Le Tigre and one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement, she's the outspoken and unstoppable face of feminism, a brilliant artist and an ass-kicking hero. She seems uncapturable, too vibrant and fleeting, but The Punk Singer, the documentary on Hanna's life by director Sini Anderson, manages to capture her anyway.
This is a movie both powerful and intimate, fitting because Hanna herself is a union of idea and woman. She's the whirling furor wailing onstage with the word SLUT scrawled across her bare stomach, and she's the soft-spoken Valley girl reflecting mildly on the complicated relationship she has with her mother. She's the woman who wrote these words: "We eat your hate like love, we eat your hate like love, how does that feel? It feels blind." And she's the woman who talks about the beautiful, helpless inevitability of her love for her husband (Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock).
In 2005, Kathleen Hanna stopped touring. The Punk Singer opens with a young Hanna hurling spoken word poetry at a party, shouting "There's not a guy big enough for this mouth," before we cut to Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein and others pondering her absence. One fan asks, "Why did she forsake us? What did we do?" The truth is, we didn't do anything wrong and Hanna hasn't forsaken us. Hanna was diagnosed six years after the fact with Lyme disease, and those six years without diagnosis allowed the disease to spread, to take hold of every part of her body. The Punk Singer compiles incredibly rare archival footage of Bikini Kill's explosive performances, but it also brings us into Hanna's life since her illness, the incredible romance she shares with her husband as he takes care of her and marvels at her strength.
Hanna, for all of her power, doesn't always seem comfortable inviting the public into the intimate truth of her life, and that's what makes The Punk Singer so remarkable. Here's a subject that both pushes us away and draws us in, who speaks openly about the most vulnerable moments of her life, who has written songs about her abortion and her sexual abuse, but who seems shy discussing her marriage. Anderson never gives up on the journey of showing us who Kathleen Hanna really is, and at the end, we have a true sense of her. She tells us that punk is an idea, not a sound, and that riot grrrl belongs to everybody. So maybe we're inclined to believe that Hanna herself is an idea that belongs to all of us, because who doesn't want to be a part of that? But The Punk Singer reminds us that Kathleen Hanna is, above all and most importantly, a woman. Just a woman.
In addition to footage from Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and revealing interviews with Hanna herself, The Punk Singer is peppered with commentary from those who know and love her best, and from scholars of third wave feminism and punk music. Even when the film goes rather macro in that sense, we cleave closely to a central story, that of whether Hanna's illness will allow her to rejoin her greatest love, making music. In the past couple of years, Hanna has formed a new band called The Julie Ruin, and by the screening of the documentary, they're producing their first record.
But Hanna's Lyme disease continues to afflict her, and near the end of the film, as she reflects on the toll her illness has taken, she worries she'll sound like she's making it all up. "When a man tells the truth, it's the truth. When I tell the truth, I have to negotiate the way I'm perceived." The Punk Singer is unnegotiated truth, a frank and exhilarating portrayal of a legend. In the '90s as Bikini Kill toured in small, crowded clubs, Hanna instilled a firm "girls to the front" rule, allowing women to attend punk shows without getting the shit kicked out of them by moshing dudes. Hanna wanted to create a safe space for women to see a band they liked, and she did that. The Punk Singer is that safe space onscreen, the rare film that brings women to the front in an authentic way that never panders. How does that feel? It feels vital.
Check back Wednesday for my interview with Kathleen Hanna and The Punk Singer director Sini Anderson.