Friday, April 4, 2014

The Punk Singer (2013): A Woman in the Open Wild

The Punk Singer (2013)
dir: Sini Anderson

If you grew up in the 90s, there was an air of women standing up for themselves...again. There was a vague feeling that this stemmed from the late 60s and into the 70s search for equality, but never had there been such a command of male techniques as what started forming in the late 1980s and into the 90s.

In the 90s, grunge became a thing, and punk moved into the mainstream. Almost all of the music was male dominated music that had to do with general teen angst and blah blah blah. But, then there was the riot grrrl movement, which had caught the attention of even many of the male adolescents in my generation. These were some seriously commanding female presences fighting for their right to be heard.

The four strongest female bands that I remembered from my misspent youth were L7, Hole, PJ Harvey, and Bikini Kill. All four of these bands landed in my worldview in the midwest within a year of each other, and all four kind of rocked my world.

The Punk Singer is about one of those bands...or more precisely, the lead singer of one of those bands.

To say that The Punk Singer is about the Riot Grrrl scene is overselling the movie. Yet, it is about a key component of that scene. To say that The Punk Singer is only about Kathleen Hanna is to undersell the movie because it also explains what she stood for and puts her in the very specific scene which she helped create. Sini Anderson has created a documentary that serves as a standalone footnote to other movies which were directly about the Riot Grrrl scene.

Kathleen Hanna is the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the creator of Julie Ruin, and later would lead Le Tigre before she disappeared from the spotlight for years. She would also marry Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. The Punk Singer follows Hanna from her youth as an art student through her life and into a where is she now, punctuated by home video, concert footage and interviews primarily with Hanna herself.

Anderson has constructed the movie so that you not only get a sense of who Hanna was, but why she was important. If Anderson oversells Hanna's role in creating the Riot Grrrl scene, it is primarily because she is singularly focused on Hanna due to the movie's nature as a portrait. Anderson uses footage from other films that are solely about the Riot Grrrl scene and includes those titles as a "If you want to learn more, here are some movies which dive deeper."

The Punk Singer is an essential footnote to the Riot Grrrl documentaries, especially because it wraps up the mysterious reason that Hanna disappeared from public life in 2005, stating that she was done and had said all that she had to say (spoiler: it was as false as it felt when she disappeared). It may even draw the new kids into seeing what their elders were up to, and how it paved the way for the 3rd wave of feminists.

Anderson keeps it personal, and includes some righteous concert footage. If it gets a bit rough it is only because some of this was homemade footage. But, it is an expertly assembled story of a girl who had something to say and demanded to be heard.

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