This holiday week, a new film from Disney, a remake of a legendary Korean thriller and a cavalcade of other pictures have attempted to make this Thanksgiving a breeding ground for some great box office receipts. However, arguably the best film to arrive this week is not only one of the smallest, but also as entrancing a music documentary as we’ve seen arrive in a year chock full of them.
Entitled The Punk Singer, this new documentary looks at the life and work of punk legend and Riot Grrrl movement leader Kathleen Hanna. Best known for the band Le Tigre, the documentary looks at not only Hanna’s work as leader of the punk band Bikini Kill, but also her solo record under the name Julie Ruin, her relationship with names like Kurt Cobain, and ultimately her leaving Le Tigre for health reasons.
Starting off seemingly asking the question as to why, after a pair of decades becoming inarguably one of the feminist movement’s greatest and most outspoken voices, Hanna left the scene in 2005 without much of a real explanation. Through over 20 years of footage ranging from early spoken word performances (which is actually the first shot in the film) to various bits of live performances from her days in bands like Le Tigre and Bikini Kill, and a collection of candid interviews with people both a part of the movement and directly involved with Hanna’s life, like her husband and Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz.
However, as we begin to learn more and more about Hanna’s life and work, the film not only paints a breathtaking picture of an artist and, in many ways, reluctant but outspoken cultural voice, but also reveals a bit about a woman who, throughout her career, became the voice for those who seemed to be voiceless. And that bled into her personal life, as well. When she decided to leave her band Le Tigre, she discovered that she was battling Lyme disease, and had been for years. While only diagnosed in the mid 2000s, she had been battling the disease for years, and was ultimately the reason she left the musical landscape.
Now, thanks to director Sini Anderson, the life, work and energy of Hanna has been captured on screen, and is one of the year’s most entertaining documentaries.
As previously mentioned, the film opens with a very young Hanna at a spoken word performance, talking about how there is no single man capable of handling “this mouth.” Thankfully, for the film itself, that sense of life, vitality and unflinching attitude is palpable. The film starts from the very beginning, starting with Kathleen’s relationship with her parents, and is a wonderfully paced look at not only the influential music that this artist made, but the impact that she as a human being had on an entire movement, ostensibly known as “Third Wave” feminism. Constantly pushed forward by the music of Kathleen Hanna, the film doesn’t just run through touchstone moments in the life and career of Hanna, but what influenced her (the art of Barbara Krueger, for example) and also things like the rarely discussed Julie Ruin record that is as breathless a bit of sample-based electronic music as there has ever been, becoming a definitive look at Hanna, and the movement so beautifully known as Riot Grrrl.
Aesthetically, the film is captivating. Again, using a great deal of source footage, the film pairs that with interviews with the likes of Joan Jett and various members of the Riot Grrrl movement that Hanna became the vocal leader of, but does so with a punk speed and energy, that it becomes something truly great. However, with Hanna being an admittedly introverted person when it comes to the media (she has, rightly so, had some problems with her portrayal in the media), this seems like an even more vital and engrossing piece of work. Hanna is a breathtaking speaker, and when paired opposite these intriguing and deeply insightful interviews about not only her, but the music she made (hearing her husband talk about the Julie Ruin record in particular is really exciting), the film carries within its DNA both the introspection of an album like Julie Ruin while the unrelenting energy of a Bikini Kill performance.
But the film truly becomes a special piece of work near its conclusion. As we see the sadness that Hanna felt having to leave a band so personal to her as Le Tigre, only to find out that it was due to something that she’s been battling for years, the film takes a turn. The relationship between her and her husband becomes a show stopping bit of narrative, and really again grounds the film as much as Hanna attempted to take punk rock and bring it back to its own true ground level.
Arguably the crowning achievement in the world of music documentaries in a year chock full of superb genre entries, The Punk Singer may not break the mold aesthetically, but it takes the central focus of Kathleen Hanna, and cinematically manifests all the energy and vitality that the punk legend has housed within that tiny frame of hers. An eminently watchable bit of documentary filmmaking, this is truly a great meditation on not only the life of a punk rock icon, but also the feminist movement that she is so deeply connected to. An absolute must-see.