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The Punk Singer

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The Punk Singer: A review of the film by Sini Anderson.

The Punk Singer is an intensely intimate and culturally powerful portrait of Kathleen Hanna – it will reverberate through our culture as one of best music documentaries ever as Kathleen Hanna still reverberates through our culture with her new band, The Julie Ruin. Congratulations and thanks to both Sini and Kathleen; we are better off because of you.

The impact of the third wave of feminism is all around us, as are the women who were coming of age in the nineties when Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill kicked off the riot grrl music scene. Girls who bought Bikini Kill’s records and managed to get to their concerts are now in their thirties and forties – and serving in Congress and city councils and governorships, managing companies, running foundations, producing movies and television and, of course, leading bands and shredding guitars.

Some of these women can trace their growth directly to Bikini Kill; others flourished in the larger liberating environment that Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathy Wilcox, Joan Jet, Alison Wolfe, Jen smith and many other riot grrls fostered with music and zines and later with film and books.

Sini Anderson captures that context in The Punk Singer, her extraordinary documentary on Kathleen Hanna. Using music, archive footage, up-close and personal conversations with Kathleen, her husband, contemporaries and band members, Anderson has taken us into and along with the life of one of the most significant women in American music, and one of the most important influences on today’s women and American culture.

Anderson has created an intensely intimate and culturally powerful personal portrait of Kathleen Hanna. Using archival footage that goes back to Hanna’s childhood and interviews with Hanna and her bandmates and musicians like Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Carrie Brownstein, The Punk Singer is not only a paean to an icon, but an introduction to Kathleen for women today and to her new band, The Julie Ruin. Although Anderson’s production values are a little rough - and unabashedly home video at times (the interviews mostly take place inside of a production van lit by Christmas tree lights), Anderson captures the ferocity of Hanna’s drive for the cause of equality through music and art – a drive that garnered national attention and kicked off a movement reverberating today.

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The film starts where Hanna’s drive started, Olympia Washington, which was awash in feminist experimentation in the 1980’s and through the 90’s. Using Bikini Kill’s hard rock music and Kathleen’s angry, sometimes screaming, songs as the soundtrack, The Punk Singer accelerates through Hanna’s childhood, teens and the rape incident that sparked the band’s formation – although none of the band members knew how to play instruments. Hanna is often the narrator of her own life in the film through intercut interviews, giving us a personal look back into her drive to use music to stop female suppression. She didn’t set out to create riot grrl movement, but she was thrilled, if reluctant, when it did.

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Sini Anderson has woven together interview with Kathleen, her husband (former Beastie Boy band member, Adam Horvitz), and various academics, band mates and friends with rare footage of her bands in action (there is actually very little video of Bikini Kill because of a self-imposed press blackout) to tell Hanna’s story well-connected to her context. This is Anderson’s first documentary film and, as she told me in an interview on Music Friday, at one point they were artistically stuck, out of time and money and were rescued by one of their producers Tamara Davis who worked with the editors and the footage they had to finish the film. The production values and a slightly disconcerting shift at the end from the past to an all too short portrait of the Kathleen of the present and the physical affliction that almost stopped her reflect that, but it doesn’t matter. The film is still a masterpiece and the credit goes fully to Anderson who was given total freedom by her friend and the film’s subject, Kathleen Hanna.

Anderson sets up the film by asking questions who was and is Kathleen Hanna, what has her impact been, why did she stop and what is she doing now? Anderson answers these questions by taking us through the power and the passion of Kathleen, delving briefly but not deeply into the question of sexual abuse by her father, and then bringing us to the brink where Kathleen says she is stopping because she has nothing more to day –and then shows us what was really going on. Kathleen had late-stage Lyme disease and was misdiagnosed for years while she deteriorated. The personal interviews with Kathleen and her husband are so powerful, rather than contrasting with the early in-your -face music of Bikini Kill, they let you understand what drives a person who has so much to say and has impacted so many in saying it.

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The Punk Singer comes out amid a wonderful rash of musical documentaries – The Jazz Girls, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugarman and many others. The Punk Singer stands out for its ability to introduce us personally to a powerful, artistic, complex woman and her context, and simultaneously open Kathleen Hanna up intimately to us and simultaneously and appropriately take us through the riot girl movement and second and third wave feminism. It is a remarkable film, especially for a first time director.

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Patrick O’Heffernan
Host, Music Friday

 The Punk Singer opens November 29th in LA at the Cinefamily Theater, 611 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036. It opens nationwide 12/6/13

4/5 rating