Judge Gordon Sullivan always looks around for rock singers at the corner grocery.
A film about Kathleen Hanna
Rock 'n' roll deals with deep, primal energies: the rush of first love, the heave and thrust of teenage hormones, the longing for the unattainable. We, as listeners, invest our time, our energy, our very lives into our musical heroes. Is it any wonder they become legends? Still, there are different kinds of legends. For some, the very fact of being unattainable and alien is what's attractive. David Bowie is legendary not just for his musical genius but because it's almost impossible to imagine him nipping down to the shops for a roll of toilet paper. Others become legends, though, for being exactly like we, the desperate seekers on the other side of the speakers. It's very possible to imagine Kurt Cobain going out to buy toilet paper, or meeting him at a local show, and it's almost accidental that he became a superstar. Kathleen Hanna falls into the latter camp—though she's obviously talented, she has a down-to-earth, DIY mentality that makes listeners feel comfortable identifying with her. She's a legend for helping to found a scene, and yet she was never totally defined by it. The Punk Singer is an admirable document of both Hanna's legend and the all-too-real facts that have kept her incognito for most of the last few years.
Facts of the Case
Kathleen Hanna, through founding Bikini Kill, is one of the central figures in the riot grrrl movement that sprang up in the late eighties and early nineties. Featuring young women who played loud and fast, the riot grrrls took no shit and were a huge part of the alternative music boom that gave us the more famous Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Hanna wasn't content to just be a riot grrrl, so she founded Le Tigre, a more experimental, electronically tinged group that similarly found popularity in alternative circles. Then, she all but disappeared in 2005. The Punk Singer picks up in the present day, following Hanna around while also looking back on her life and influence through interviews with fellow riot grrrls and others in the know.
It's a pretty tired cliché of the music film that we start with a figure who has disappeared—whether it's a lost bluesman or a one hit wonder now working a grill, movies love it when someone significant goes away for a while. It's a bit ironic, then, that that's exactly what happened with Kathleen Hanna. In 2005, she stopped playing live largely without explanation. The Punk Singer takes this disappearance as its starting point. We work back towards why we should care that Hanna was gone, while also working forwards as we discover what drove Hanna to leave and where she is today.
Thus, the film works on at least three levels. The first is a documentary about riot grrrls more generally. Hanna is a key figure in the movement, and The Punk Singer makes clear that it's about more than just music. The whole "scene" was about applying a kind of feminist ethos to the DIY standards of punk. It was about women supporting each other, forming bands, and producing a community that was as much about social and political solidarity as it was about making loud, kick-ass music. All the expected figures show up in the film: Carrie Brownstein (now of Portlandia, but before that most famous for her involvement with Sleater-Kinney) and Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) are on hand to explain what happened in the early nineties and why you should care.
The film also works as a biography of Hanna herself. Because she's so integral to the scene, much of early biography is covered by that material, and the film follows her as she found Le Tigre. The film then picks up again as we learn that Hanna "disappeared" in 2005 due to illness; much of the final part of the film is about her struggle to get a diagnosis and then figure out how to live around it.
The film itself is very well put together. This is obviously an "authorized" affair, so we get generous selections of Hanna's music, lots of cooperative interviews with Hanna's friends, family, and collaborators, and the film moves at a quick pace. Because of this strong sense of craft, The Punk Singer is likely to appeal to documentary fans who've never heard of Hanna.
This DVD release is also pretty good. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is composed of a lot of different kinds of footage, from home-video quality shots of twenty-year-old live shows to contemporary digital images. The material looks good throughout, the obviously the more recent stuff looks better. The audio fares better, as the dialogue is clean and clear from the front while the use of music gets clarity and solid dynamic range from this 5.1 surround track.
Extras consist mainly of deleted material, including more interview material with Hanna, camcorder footage of various bands she's been in, and a fake TV spot she was involved in.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's something to complain about with The Punk Singer, it's that it's all a bit too upbeat. I like Kathleen Hanna as a musician, and she's obviously integral to the last twenty or so years of "alternative" music. However, the film doesn't ever really stray from a flattering portrait of Hanna. That's not necessarily a problem, but it can be a bit one-sided. Of course if the film did focus more on the negative, it would look pretty cheap, given Hanna's health struggles. Still, those looking for a warts-and-all exploration of riot grrrl won't find it here.
The Punk Singer is a fine documentary that looks at an underexplored aspect of twentieth-century music culture. By focusing on Kathleen Hanna, the film gets to tell not only her story, but a number of stories about riot grrrl and "alternative" music as well. The film is well-enough constructed that even those unfamiliar with Hanna or riot grrrl will get something out of it. Add in a decent DVD release, and you've got a film worth at least a rental to music and documentary fans.
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