Here she goes again, another music film. I know, I can’t help it. Especially since the BFI spent the whole of August screening a season of films for Punk London, a year of exhibitions, gigs, talks and films celebrating 40 years of Punk heritage and influence. However, whereas venues like The British Library have put together exhibitions and events which concentrate predominantly on the golden years of British Punk in the 70s, the BFI curated a much more eclectic season. It featured established punk favourites like ‘Jubilee’ as well as less well know films like Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’. It was a brilliant line up but the one I was especially excited about was this one, ‘The Punk Singer’, a documentary exploring the life and career of one of Punks most prolific female contributors, Kathleen Hanna. Never heard of her? Well now’s your chance.
Let’s start where the film starts, in Olympia, Washington, in the 80s where Hanna attends the Evergreen State College. Having discovered feminism at an early age through her mother, she starts performing her own feminist poetry at spoken word events and sets up a feminist gallery with some friends after the college start to censor her artworks.
At Evergreen she meets Toby Vail and Kathi Wilcox and one of the most exciting bands of the 90s evolves into being, Bikini Kill. With Hanna as the front-woman their music is political, personal and fundamentally feminist. There is some brilliant footage of Bikini Kill playing live where Hanna can be heard to order all men to the back so that women in the audience can occupy the front. In fact the archive footage is absolutely excellent in this film, anyone who loves Riot Grrrl and the scene in Olympia in the 90s is in for a treat watching this. It will make you want to start a band immediately.
Anderson also explores the huge amount of pressure Hanna faced from the music press who gloried in pitting female musicians against each other and twisting their words. As the pressure mounts and Bikini Kill starts to implode in the late 90s, Hanna begins to evolve as a musician and records an album in her bedroom, the genius masterwork ‘Julie Ruin’. After a spell of soul searching she meets Johanna Fateman and forms Le Tigre. Feminism starts to get an electro pop makeover. Every project Hanna embarks upon is fresh and different but with her distinctive style stamped on it. When I said she’s prolific, I really meant it. The film also touches on her activism on behalf of pro-choice and anti-abuse organisations.
The heartbreaking part of the film explores her battle with late stage Lyme disease. The injustice of such an energetic, passionate woman being subdued by this illness is so frustrating and really upset me at points. But she continues to be utterly courageous and carries on performing with her current project ‘The Julie Ruin’ despite the debilitating effects of her illness.
I love how the story of Hannas relationship with, and marriage to, Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys) is explored. From their initial meeting, through existential strife, marriage, friendship and illness the arc of their relationship is so touching. It’s also very honest and left me feeling a great amount of warmth and affection for them both. After the death of Brangelina, these two are my new role models. They’re totally boss-ing the marriage thing.
I’d say one of the best things about this film is how many women are in it, which did not happen by coincidence. Hanna has since said that she didn’t want the film to find validation through the opinions of prominent male figures. The only men interviewed are Hannas husband Adam, Bikini Kill guitarist Billy Karen and Lyme disease expert Leo Galland. The rest of the testimonies come from a host of brilliantly accomplished women. Featuring Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Corin Tucker of Sleater Kinney, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson of Le Tigre and Alison Wolfe of Bratmobile this is a total treat for anyone who loves Riot Grrl or is interested in women in music in general.
If you’re not a Riot Grrl, Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fan, Hanna can be an acquired taste. Her distinctive singing voice is nasal and her manner can come across as slightly arrogant. But as you watch, you can’t help but fall a little bit in love with her. As an experiment I took my best friend to see this film to judge whether it would appeal to someone who didn’t love the music. We’ve been friends for 13 years and the reason it works so well (I think) is that we are very different in a lot of ways. The one reason for suspecting she might like it is that she’s a massive feminist. And I was right, she did. She got so involved she almost cried (sorry Emma!!).
My one criticism would be that the film moves very fast and often there is text scrolling and people talking all at the same time so you feel as though you’ve probably missed bits by the end. There’s just an awful lot happening at the same time but in a way it matches Hannas frenetic energy.
I already had massive amounts of love for Kathleen Hanna, but now my cup it overfloweth. Anderson has done an incredible job presenting such a well-rounded portrait of a woman with so many strings to her bow. It’s fast paced, you’ll never get bored and it’s heartbreakingly honest. In fact, I’m going to watch it again, immediately.