The Punk Singer

Pink and white photo of Kathleen Hanna standing in front of a microphone
Kathleen Hanna
5
Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014

There are times when I hesitate giving any work (an album, movie, or book) "5 stars." In fact, I try really hard not to do it. The idea that a work is "Perfect" and therefore deserving an entire constellation seems somewhat counter-productive to critical thinking and writing about whatever work a person has experienced: Does the White Album REALLY need all of those songs? Did Han Solo REALLY have to live? Objective correlative, indeed!

That being said, it's pretty difficult to NOT award The Punk Singer five stars and some kind of glowing effusive praise. The troubling thing is, I'm not sure what or who I'm giving the five stars to: the film itself, the film's subject, musician/singer/activist Kathleen Hanna or her doubtless legacy and influence in the fields of music and modern feminism. Perhaps this is folly and even condescending. But given the truly revolutionary nature of the subject's actions, attitudes, and aspirations, it is difficult to separate the personal results from the quality of the actual film about Hanna.

Stylistically, there isn't anything groundbreaking about The Punk Singer. The filming is somewhat pedestrian. Which really isn't a bad thing. Crazy effects or frenetic cinematography might have impeded upon reporting the seriousness of Hanna's work, influence, and the difficulty she faced (and continues to face) in light of her deteriorating physical health. Perhaps the best compliment I can bestow upon the film maker Sini Anderson is that she stays out of the way of Hanna telling her story. Indeed, one of the most arresting, honest moments from the film is a simple shot of Hanna sitting in silence, then crying before relating the details of her battle with Lyme disease.

Inversely, from the first shot of the film, Hanna is shown as the manic force (a word commonly assigned to both her performance and politics, which most would assert are one-in-the-same) many describe her to be. Wild, brash, confrontational and a host of other words only dance around the power and genuine upheaval Hanna sought to restore to young women and demonstrate upon an archaic patriarchy she saw as pedantic and infantalizing to women. Hanna is shown galvanizing her audience with a seemingly shredded larynx in otherworldly performances of the anthems like "Rebel Girl" and "New Radio."

As a late comer to the Kathleen Hanna party, I can say that the existence of the documentary invited me to investigate her music and work. It was a necessary stop on my personal journey to unravel the mystery that was the musical and political climate of the late 80s and early 90s. So much happened in such a short period of time, only to be watered down and commodifed at the hands of major corporations (see the Spice Girls and Bush for further evidence). Cobain's suicide was merely the seemingly inevitable bookend to a revolution that quickly imploded after barely getting off the ground. At least Hanna is still alive and continuing to fight the good fight that she dove headfirst into almost 3 decades ago.

Watch-a-likes:

1991: The Year Punk Broke

Gus Van Sant's Last Days

Mudhoney's I'm Now

About A Son

Scott S.

Written by Scott S.

Fun fact: And I guess that I just don't know.