Jigsaw Youth

Sara Marcus on The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna

Sini Anderson, The Punk Singer, 2013, color, sound, 80 minutes. Photo: Christy Pessagno.

“THEY WEREN’T JUST THE BEST GIRL BAND; they were the best band.” So says a voice-over near the beginning of Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, a documentary about the pioneering feminist musician Kathleen Hanna. The band in question, at this point in the movie, is Bikini Kill, the punk quartet Hanna fronted for most of the 1990s, and as this assertion is made, the viewer is bathing in a manic montage of concert footage. Rebel girl, Hanna is singing, first marching in place on one stage, then pogo-ing on another; in a black lace bra, in a T-shirt and undies, in a dress with a nearly life-size Playgirl beefcake emblazoned on it; rebel girl you are the queen of my world. That song’s appeal has proved amazingly durable, probably reaching more young listeners today in digital form than it did on dubbed cassette and mail-order vinyl when the tune was new. That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. I’ve got news for you: She Is. The beauty of “Rebel Girl” is that it could be about anyone, a double dare to any listener to live her life so that she’ll be worthy of it, to believe she is the queen of the neighborhood and, believing, make it true.

The queen of the neighborhood in The Punk Singer is unquestionably Hanna, and this loving portrait is as glowing a tribute as any dignitary could dream of. The story—which follows Hanna as she founds Riot Grrrl, titles Nirvana’s breakthrough megahit, creates indelible punk with Bikini Kill, rises to global renown with Le Tigre, and then drops out of sight for years—unfolds through concert tapes, home videos (Hanna was a prolific practitioner of the video selfie avant la lettre), and interviews with a wide range of friends, collaborators, and observers whose reminiscences quilt into a narrative. (Full disclosure: I appear briefly in the film as well.)

“What everybody said about [Bikini Kill],” Hanna recounts, “was that we couldn’t play our instruments. And we said, ‘And…?’” If the first half of this movie celebrates DIY improvisation and exuberance, it’s nevertheless a film about a punk who grew up and made good, and the overall aesthetic is vivid and lush, the colors pristine and the sound velvet-smooth. Hanna looks mesmerizing nearly every time she’s on screen; other interviewees appear bathed in ethereal light. Concert footage splices together multiple performances of the same song, synched to a studio version, so viewers get to witness the kinetic magnificence of Hanna performing while hearing the track’s clearest cut.

In its first half, the film zooms through the eventful first fifteen years of Hanna’s career at a breakneck pace. When it reaches 2005, the year Le Tigre stopped making music, the movie takes a deep breath. Performance montages give way to lyric shots of sun sparking on water. The initial mystery presented in the film—why did Hanna suddenly fall silent?—now takes center stage. Troubling symptoms, an eventual diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease, and a grueling regimen of treatments ensue. In a wrenching exception to all the luminous close-ups, we get an overhead shot of Hanna on a couch, clearly in severe discomfort after taking her anti-Lyme meds. By the end of the film, she is just beginning to make music again.

Feminists have often displayed a special talent for tearing one another down. The Punk Singer, on the other hand, implicitly comes out in favor of feminist hagiography. A bit more self-reflexiveness on this point might have helped make the film’s mission feel more deliberate. But the documentary is apparently aimed at audiences who have only glancing familiarity with Hanna’s work and career—and, given the film’s imminent opening in nearly fifty US cities, it will probably reach many viewers who are uninterested in the nuanced discussions that continue to attend Hanna and her legacy. No band since Bikini Kill has managed to capture quite so archly the furor, defiance, and joy of feminist awakening, and the need for such work is as keen as ever. If this documentary chooses gospel-spreading over fine-grained critique, it’s an understandable choice.

A group of college students recently told me that if they wanted to start a cultural-political movement, they wouldn’t form a band or make a zine; these days, they said, people spread messages by making movies. If that’s true, then perhaps The Punk Singer is exactly what the latest princess-addled generation of young women need to double-dare them into girl rebellion.

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna opens Friday, November 29 at the IFC Center in New York, Cinefamily in Los Angeles, and the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.