Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013)

Rebel Girl

Photo: Kathleen Hanna. Courtesy of Dogwoof (
Even a cursory glance at the critical discussion surrounding the documentary The Punk Singer will highlight one recurrent word: hagiography. And it's not an unfair choice of vocabulary. This is a portrait of Bikini Kill / Le Tigre singer Kathleen Hanna where director Sini Anderson clearly has a deep rooted respect for her subject. The various talking heads - including Joan Jett, Adam Horovitz (Hanna's husband), Kim Gordon and Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker & Carrie Brownstein - also wax lyrical about Hanna's talent and influence. Some time is allotted to sound out some of the criticisms Hanna's music, ideologies and even personal life have been subjected to over the years, but it's very much from a defensive, some might argue dismissive, perspective.

In a lesser film, this sort of one-sidedness would be fatal: many documentaries have been rendered lesser by the filmmakers' personal connection with the subject matter, with many of the all time great docs illustrating an elegant ability to achieve some sort of critical distance even when the director's own allegiances are obvious (there are, of course, other cases where the film's one-sided perspective works perfectly). The Punk Singer, however, pulls off its near hagiography with aplomb: in fact, it makes for a richer film overall and a more appropriate tribute to Hanna as both an artist and an individual.

The thing is, Hanna has always been no-nonsense and in our faces, unafraid to say what she really thinks. Her shouted lyrics don't shy away from the topics they explore or hide behind metaphors. And confrontational subjects they usually are, often aggressively and very literally addressing everything from sexual abuse to the miserable state of politics, with feminist themes perhaps the most obvious driving force behind her art. In the early days of the riot grrrl movement she helped initiate, she and her fellow artists distributed makeshift zines that read like straight-up feminist manifestos. This was an attitude that transferred to her first band Bikini Kill's live performances, where Hanna would passionately urge everyone to allow women to come up near the front so they couldn't be injured by the men's moshing. It's this very bluntness and self-confidence that irked and continues to irk many of Hanna's critics - although some simply think her music is not very good, or her ideologies trite. Nonetheless, it's the attitude what allows Anderson's film to sing and feel like a true and honest portrait of Kathleen Hanna - if she doesn't try to tame her own viewpoint or pull punches, neither will the film.

It helps that Anderson has adapted a style that's perfectly in harmony with Hanna and her life story so far. Titles and text take are modeled and those aforementioned photocopied zines, and the whole film has a vibrant, devil may care approach to editing and visuals: observe, for instance, that many key interviews delightfully take place in the back of a rundown van decorated with fairy lights. Surely this stylistic energy was very consciously and painstakingly manufactured, but it comes across as endearingly ramshackle and handcrafted on screen. And this gels nicely with Hanna's music, which is very often rough and imperfect (her first solo album under the name Julie Ruin was recorded entirely in her bedroom) but rawer and more exciting because of it. While heavily adopting the tried-and-tested - and in most cases quite boring - documentary combination of talking head interviews and archival footage, the vibrancy with which everything is put together allows The Punk Singer to merrily rise above standard fare.

The first half of the film - briefly reflecting on Hanna's childhood & upbringing, but mostly focused on the Bikini Kill and riot grrrl days - pulsate with mosaic-style editing, the enthusiasm and ambition of Hanna and her friends (there's plenty of footage from the time, thankfully) and the vast amount of lively Bikini Kill cuts on the soundtrack. The style mellows around the halfway mark, but this reflects nicely the emergence of Le Tigre and its tighter sound, as well as Hanna's own path, not least her marriage to Horovitz (the irony of a famed feminist marrying one of the songwriters behind hits like Girls is not lost on our star, who amusingly comments on the fact in one interview segment). It's the final stretch that really surprises, though: Hanna's debilitating battle with Lyme's disease put her musical and artistic ambitions on hold for almost half a decade. Luckily, the cameras kept rolling to include her recent return to music with her new band The Julie Ruin (emphasis on the definite article).

At the centre of this all is Hanna herself: just about as captivating a subject as any documentary maker could hope for. It will be the rare viewer who isn't won over by her honesty, wit and intelligence. She is as down-to-earth as you could hope, equal parts confident and modest, and the impression is that she's on-the-level throughout. As you might have guessed, she doesn't hold back, but that leads in some unexpected directions. In one clip Anderson plays for several minutes straight, Hanna asks her husband to film her as she suffers from a medication related fit. It's an image she well knows is unflattering and intimate, but she shares it on screen her to highlight the challenges she faced (and the loving help she received) but more importantly to emphasise how serious and crippling Lyme's disease can be. Even at her frailest, Kathleen Hanna is still a powerful and influential activist, someone whose own artistic and personal ambitions are always motivated by a greater and very often selfless good. It might just be down to clever editing and my own personal fondness for many of the musicians featured herein, but The Punk Singer managed to completely convince me Anderson's ill-disguised respect and fondness for Kathleen Hanna is very well founded indeed.

In her most iconic song, Hanna yells "that girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood... that girl she holds her head up so high... in her hips there's revolution". It's an apt description for Kathleen Hanna herself, and The Punk Singer argues it incredibly convincingly. My main thought leaving the cinema was therefore a resounding 'fuck yeah!'. 

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