IN 1995, no one was cooler than Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. She was brave, beautiful, political, and wasn't scared of anyone, not even Courtney Love. Post-Bikini Kill, Hanna branched out and got better with subsequent projects like Julie Ruin, her brilliant 1998 solo album, and Le Tigre, a band of self-described "underground electro feminist performance artists" that brought Hanna as close to being a household name as she's likely to get. For thousands of us, she made feminism real, relevant, and—maybe most importantly—fun.
It's weird and awesome to see a polished, talking-head-style documentary about the girl who once snarled "suck my left one" while wearing a ponytail and a mini-dress—and it feels very much in keeping with Hanna's career-long mission of supporting other women that Sini Anderson's enjoyable new documentary is, in return, a love letter to Hanna. The Punk Singer is packed with amazing old concert footage and interviews with Hanna's peers, including extensive interviews with Hanna herself; it's also slickly edited and one-sided, content to shore up Hanna's legacy as a punk rock hero.
Filmmaker Anderson is a longtime friend of Hanna's, and The Punk Singer is correspondingly affectionate, forgoing much in the way of analysis or critique in favor of a timeline of Hanna's career, framed around the question of why she stopped performing in 2005. The reason, as anyone with a passing interest in Hanna's career knows, is that she has Lyme disease; the decision to bookend The Punk Singer with the question-and-answer of "what happened to Kathleen?" feels like an attempt to impose a narrative on a life that isn't nearly so clear cut. (As Hanna herself puts it, she has many "origin stories.")
All of that said, The Punk Singer makes a persuasive case for Hanna's cultural significance—there's no arguing with footage of Hanna bopping around stage in a bra, "slut" painted on her stomach, or famously inviting girls to the front of the stage at Bikini Kill concerts. Newer footage is equally compelling: In interviews, Hanna opens up about her life, her politics, and dimly remembered controversies from the '90s, like the "media blackout" after grrrl bands got sick of having their message misrepresented by journalists, or that time Courtney Love punched her in the face. There's even footage of Hanna undergoing treatment for Lyme disease, in an effort to demonstrate the seriousness of her condition. While deeply disturbing, the scene reflects concerns that have run through Hanna's work from the beginning: Why she, and by extension, all women, are not taken seriously, and if she even cares. (Her "valley girl accent" is discussed at some length.)
The Punk Singer features interviews with Carrie and Corin from Sleater-Kinney and Allison from Bratmobile, girls in bands that those of us listening from home on suburban tape decks knew by their first names. (With the sole exception of Hanna's husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, all of the people interviewed in the film are women, at Hanna's request—sorry, Thurston Moore.)
"Kathleen Hanna is fucking amazing" could be this film's subtitle; all of the riot grrrl mythology is lovingly dusted off and polished with nostalgia until it gleams. The Punk Singer is an affectionately reverent homage to an important figure—not the last word on the movement Hanna spearheaded, but a valuable tribute in its own right.