April 25th, 2014
While I recall the days when Bikini Kill was around and the Riot Grrl movement was making waves, I have to admit that I paid attention to neither at the time. And so I watched The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, in part, to learn the history that I should have learned as it happened. Better late than never. When it was done, I felt that much of my ignorance was gone but also very ambivalent about the movie.
The Punk Singer’s strength is its subject, Kathleen Hanna. She is a strong, charismatic, determined, and passionate woman. (She is also very beautiful in a conventional way which makes me wonder if this documentary would have ever been made had she looked more like Mama Cass or had been a woman of color. But that’s for another post.) The movie opens with an excerpt of one of Hanna’s spoken word performances done while she was in college in Olympia, Washington. It is blistering and angry. That passion spills over to music after author Kathy Acker admonishes the young woman to abandon spoken word and form a band. As the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Hanna was perfect. Old concert footage shows her alternately strutting around the stage flaunting her sexuality and angrily screaming out her lyrics of female empowerment. In one sequence we see her tell the men to move to the rear of the venue so that the women can be at the front of the stage.
The movie also gives a good look at the origins of Riot Grrl, a feminist movement that Hanna helped found. Today we’d say that she and other women networked but in the early 90s it was women distributing handbills and passing out copies of fanzines to other women at shows in the Olympia area and eventually elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Archival footage shows young women just getting together and talking about issues that mattered to their lives such as rape, patriarchy, and sexuality. What started as women getting together in informal settings to talk grew into a movement associated with various punk bands in the area who espoused feminist ideals and dealt with relevant subject matter.
Bikini Kill ended in 1997. At this point the movie takes on a rather different tone. By-and-large, anger is replaced by introspection. Hanna was weary of her role as a leader of a movement and wanted to write music for herself instead of for others.Hanna recorded a true solo album (one on which she played all of the instruments) under the name Julie Ruin the following year. The New Wave sound on that album carried over to her new band Le Tigre. Hanna began suffering health issues but hid them from her bandmates and friends. In 2005 she left the Le Tigre ostensibly because she was a spent force creatively but in reality she could just no longer carry on. She would eventually be diagnosed with late-stage Lyme Disease. The final part of the film portrays her struggles with the disease and her reemergence in 2011 with a new band, The Julie Ruin.
If this all sounds about like an episode of Behind the Music that’s because the movie adheres to that formula. But that’s not my biggest quarrel with this movie. The main problem with The Punk Singer is that it’s not a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, it’s that it is pure hagiography. It reminded me of reading excerpts from medieval texts on saints’ lives. The praise here is so effusive that I half expected someone to claim that Hanna could heal the sick and walk on water. It would seem that director Sini Anderson and perhaps some of her co-producers simply wanted to pay tribute to a friend rather than offer something approaching an objective look at Hanna and her accomplishments. I can’t think of any interviews in which anyone expressed even the mildest form of criticism. OK, Hanna was self-critical at times but it would have been much more interesting had women been interviewed who were critical of Hanna in some way – even something as minor as saying, “I’m a feminist, but standing onstage in your underwear with the word ‘SLUT’ written across your stomach is not my idea of advancing feminism.” Or something. Just anything beyond a stream of gushing superlatives.
Another disappointment was how the movie provided context on an inconsistent basis. For example, it did give a very brief look at the first and second waves of feminism before putting Hanna and Bikini Kill into the third. However, in the rush to have women on camera declaring their fealty and awe for Hanna, the movie never puts her in context of women in rock music. More than once an interviewee will say that seeing Bikini Kill was “the first time I ever saw a woman…” You follow this up with more praise and the movie ends up portraying Hanna as the Ur-feminist rocker. It would have been both more interesting and less sycophantic to position Hanna as an inheritor of the legacy of The Slits, The Runaways, Wendy O. Williams, L7, and probably many more. This is made all the more odd considering that Joan Jett appears in the movie.
I don’t know whose idea it was but somebody made the decision to all but exclude male voices. Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys gets some screentime as he is Hanna’s husband while Bikini Kill’s guitarist, Billy Karren gets in a few words via archival interviews but that’s it. Kurt Cobain plays a role as Hanna’s friend but he obviously cannot get in front of a camera which makes me wonder if he ever did say anything on camera about Hanna and/or Bikini Kill which was deliberately ignored by the director. While an interesting stylistic decision, the paucity of male voices means that, when one does appear, it is jarring. And it left me questioning what other men had a role in Hanna’s life and career. Did Cobain have a role in helping Bikini Kill after he achieved fame with Nirvana? Even something as small as mentioning them in an interview? If he did, this certainly wouldn’t help the movie’s feminist empowerment message. Regardless, having for intents and purposes one male voice made me feel like a lot of the story was deliberately omitted.
Lastly and briefly, considering that this movie is a profile of a musician and singer, songs get short shrift here. Hanna’s lyrics are emphasized but it would have been nice to hear more music. No songs are performed in full and little is said about the music itself or the creative process behind it. Furthermore the movie has this annoying habit of showing some live concert footage that was obviously shot by an amateur and quickly fading in the much higher fidelity studio version of that same song over the video. Why do this? Why replace the more raw, energetic live performance with the slicker studio version?
Kathleen Hanna seems to be a very interesting person and is certainly influential so she makes for a good subject. It’s too bad the filmmakers here spent more time trying to deify her instead of probing deeper into her life as a human being with all the failures and foibles that plague the rest of us.