There is a danger with music documentaries that only existing fans of the featured artist will bother going to see them. They mostly exist to reflect on the end of a career of a successful artist who somehow captured the mood of a culture or demographic, but if you dislike or have no interest in that artist then it’s hard to generate the enthusiasm to commit to a feature length film about them.
This is emphatically not the case with Kathleen Hanna… She is such an inspiring, funny, playful and compelling figure that it simply doesn’t matter how much you like her music or not. Her story is well worth the 81 minutes that you spend with her in Sini Anderson’s wonderful biopic.
For those who don’t know, Hanna was the lead singer of an unapologetically feminist 90s grunge band called Bikini Kill. Following the standard punk aesthetic, she found a few friends at Art College who could barely play instruments and formed a band as a necessary byproduct of wanting to perform her poetry in public. Hanna also decided to try something radical at her Bikini Kill shows: appeal to women.
The grunge scene of the early nineties was a fiercely masculine affair – lots of sweaty, drunken men moshing and surging into each other to a droning soundtrack of distortion and monotone. This led to women feeling intimidated and excluded from the connection with the music and the bands. So Hanna conducted an experiment and insisted that it should be ‘All Girls To The Front’, which happens to also be a wonderfully polysemic political statement…
One of her biggest fans and closest friends was none other than Kurt Cobain. Hanna once graffitied the words “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a wall, and thus history was made. He loved Bikini Kill and wrote about Hanna loads in his journals that were distastefully released posthumously a decade ago.
Hanna eventually split Bikini Kill up, and as the music landscape changed managed to reincarnate her career with a new electroclash band Le Tigre, who perfectly fit into the New York millennial scene. A trick that she would repeat for a third time with solo project The Julie Ruin, a collection of lo-fi electronic musings for hipsters.
It was during this later period that she became seriously ill and reclusive, leaving her fans with a mystery of why she stopped performing. But the story is worth hearing through her own words not mine.
The film itself is great fun to watch, with a playful tone and insightful interviews with such luminaries as Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney/Portlandia) and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) talking about Hanna and her feisty rock scene that became known as Riot Girrl. The editing of the film is particularly brilliant, especially the moments where different performances are spliced together to give a flavour of her amazing live shows.
As I said before, if you know nothing of Riot Girrl, Bikini Kill or Kathleen Hanna it really doesn’t matter. A Punk Singer will make you want to pick up a guitar and change peoples lives.