The Punk Singer
Set to the rowdy music of female-fronted punk rock bands, “The Punk Singer” is a great coming out story of a woman who is considered an influential figure in music. Although the movie is all about Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of Bikini Kill, “The Punk Singer” manages to capture the feel of an underground feminist punk rock movement through the eyes of one of its chief founders. The shocking reveal of Hanna’s illness adds an emotional plot twist to the story, as footage and interviews of her musical career build up to the shocking revelation.
The film opens with archival footage of a young Hanna performing a powerful spoken word piece. It then cuts to a mash up of various interviews, all trying to answer one compelling question: why did Kathleen Hanna suddenly stop performing?
“The Punk Singer” isn’t an insight into Hanna’s personal life, but rather it tells her story by following her through her musical career up to her retirement, all leading up to the reveal of her long battle with Lyme disease.
“The Punk Singer” pinpoints Hanna as a central figure of the riot grrrl movement in the mid-‘90s, associated with third-wave feminism, and praises her for her progressive ideals in music. The first half of the movie follows Hanna’s musical journey with her band Bikini Kill as she reveals how she dealt with harassment for her strong opinions on female empowerment.
The film seems a bit cluttered at times, lacking a fluid story line, with quotes and interviews from Hanna’s band members, friends, husband (Adam Horovitz, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys) and Hanna herself about feminism and her various bands and that seem a bit random and out of context.
Rare archival footage and various interviews of those close to Hanna fail to give an in-depth perspective on her story and personal interviews with Hanna only offer small anecdotes. Music veterans like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney make appearances in the film. Some other lesser-known interviewees, however, seem out of place.
Hanna adds very depthless viewpoints to the stories of her life, such as her story of writing “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s apartment wall, referring to the women’s deodorant which inspired Nirvana’s hit song. She doesn’t offer any new insight that fans of Hanna wouldn’t have already known.
The film’s emotional aspect starts to unfold as Hanna finally starts opening up about her personal life when it is revealed that she lost her voice right before a show with her band Le Tigre in North Carolina. There is a heartbreaking scene as footage of Hanna’s last performance is shown as she admits her denial of her sickness at the time, admitting how she stopped her career short because she had to, while telling everyone around her it was because she chose to.
This is when Hanna’s emotional journey with her illness starts to unveil and the audience is exposed to Hanna’s battle as she is continuously misdiagnosed and grapples with a mystery disease. There’s powerful home footage of her husband filming her while she struggles to stay conscious after taking her medicine.
The film concludes with a scene of Horovitz shooting Hanna up with her drugs while she prepares for her debut performance in her new band The Julie Ruin. The film ends with a hopeful attitude and an inspiring message to her fans of her triumphant comeback to the music industry.
The public revelation of Hanna’s illness and an answer to a long awaited question of her sudden retirement make a mere documentary about a punk singer an emotional and enthralling story.
— Marcela Guimaraes
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