Cinema Review – The Punk Singer

In 2005, after a successful career as the front woman for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna retired from performing. Sini Anderson’s documentary takes a look back over the activist, musician and cultural icon’s life, while answering the question, where did she disappear to?

Kathleen Hanna has had a wide and varied career, staring as a spoken word artist in Oregon, before quickly forming the band Bikini Kill and loudly – and fearlessly – singing feminist songs. Sini Anderson’s film takes us right back to those early days and, with the help of archive footage and interviews with writers, actors and singers, weaves the story of an outspoken woman who fought for political awareness and free artistic expression.

Having toured with Bikini Kill for several years – and formed lasting friendships and relationships along the way – the band went their separate ways. Hanna recorded a solo album, Julie Ruin, before joining up with Johanna Fateman to form Le Tigre and explore more electronic style of music. Suddenly, Hanna disappeared from public life in 2005.

The Punk Singer is a nostalgic look back at the music of the early 1990s, and examines the impact that a band, which never truly rose to fame, had on the culture of the time. Hanna comes across as an incredibly angry and passionate woman in the archive footage, but in interviews, she speaks frankly about her career, life and the relationships she formed.

The film also reveals the personal struggles that Hanna went through, from being stricken with late stage Lyme Disease – which went undiagnosed for many years – to being physically attacked by Courtney Love, and wrongly quoted as saying her father sexually abused her. Through watching archive footage of Hanna’s performances, it becomes clear that she was hugely influenced by many women who went before her, and influences many who followed in her wake. Sadly, the film does not directly address this, giving the feeling that Hanna and her bandmates were operating in a creative vacuum. As well as this, the film does stray dangerously close to being a hagiography, but Hanna is so forthright, honest and obviously flawed, that the film is pulled back from the brink.

The Punk Singer is a fascinating, warts and all examination of a cultural icon. The film is filled with great interviews with people such as Carrie Brownstein, JD Samson and Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz. What emerges is a portrait of a fearless woman who may or may not have been right in her methods, but certainly raised some important issues with her work. Happily, Hanna is making music again, and has newly formed a band called The Julie Ruin.

Rating: 4/5

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