In 2005, musician Kathleen Hanna, co-founder of the riot grrrl movement and frontwoman for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, disappeared from the scene seemingly without warning. Conventional belief held that Hanna, who spent the better part of 15 years as an outspoken feminist punk-rock juggernaut, had simply run out of things to say; in fact, that’s exactly what she told her bandmates, friends, and husband (Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz of Beastie Boys). But as she reveals in Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, Hanna stepped away from music because of complications with an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease. And though part of the documentary is dedicated to raising awareness for the often misunderstood illness, most of it is an admiring, spirited rundown of Hanna’s life and career.
Like many biographical docs, The Punk Singer leans heavily on archival footage, the bulk of which comes from Hanna’s early days in Bikini Kill. It’s not the most inspired way to construct a film, but it’s easy to see why Anderson felt inclined to include such extensive archival material. Bellowing in to the microphone and pogoing across the stage, often wearing just her bra and panties with the word “slut” scrawled across her midriff, she was truly a force to be reckoned with, her boundless energy indicative of her sense of showmanship as well as the general fervor she felt toward constructs of sexism, gender roles, and antifeminism. Hanna, who’s shown at the start of the film performing slam poetry, is a fine enough singer, but she’s gifted orator, a voracious and uncompromising spirit whose presence transcends crude analog footage. If Anderson is going to rely on other people’s images to tell her story, at least she chose smartly.
Most of the original footage is dedicated to talking-head interviews, yet another insipid staple of contemporary documentary filmmaking, but Anderson is once again shrewd in her decision-making. Her mostly female cast of experts includes Hanna’s riot-grrl compatriots Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, and writers Ann Powers and Jennifer Baumgardner, each of whom are complimentary to the point of reverential. Part of that has to do with Anderson creating a sense of obligatory approbation for her subject (after all, an interview with Courtney Love, who famously cold-cocked Hannah backstage at Lollapalooza, might have killed the mood), but the amount of praise she’s given by her colleagues is genuine, even if the same basic points are repeated ad nauseam, a symptom of any documentary that relies too heavily on talking heads.
Then there’s Hanna herself, who remains gregarious despite appearing fatigued. She’s candid and prone to self-effacement, but as an interviewee she’s not as refreshingly contentious as her polemical public persona would lead one to expect. Really, the only revelation made in The Punk Singer is that all the nice words thrown her way by friends and colleagues seem entirely justified. The film may be another unimaginative fan letter, but at least Hannah is worthy of such devotion.