“I’m gonna finish my fuckin’ symphony.” That powerful phrase comes up as Kathleen Hanna recalls a musician friend’s defiant reaction to a hideous assault in college. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of The Punk Singer (2013), Sini Anderson’s scrappy, vital documentary on Hanna, the fiery frontwoman of seminal nineties punk band Bikini Kill and, later, Le Tigre. The film positions Hanna as a countercultural linchpin, around whom a new artistic movement formed. Through Anderson’s lenses, the singer becomes the urtext of riot grrrl; a perfect embodiment of the faction’s rough DIY aesthetics and propulsive feminist rhetoric. Anderson brilliantly captures this delicate balance of disparate drives.
Sara Marcus, the author of the excellent Girls to the Front, and several other key players provide essential context on the marriage of Hanna’s music with her strongly held gender politics. One comes away struck by the sheer malleability of riot grrrl; it was a movement to be seized for a person’s own means. It turned the physicality of punk into a gender issue and appropriated its ideals into feminism, ultimately bringing the movement to the door of popular culture; its genius being in the way these individuals used cultural tools to address a wider sociological issue. Centring the ever-watchable figure of Hanna as the nucleus of the genre is, for want of a better phrase, a narrative convenience that allows Anderson and her documentary to give a concise, streamlined history of an amorphous group.
It’s authoritative as a cinematic portrait and manages to cover the wider social history that affected not only Hanna, but her numerous riot grrl compatriots, including Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney who went on to give the movement its masterpiece with the All Hands on the Bad One LP (“Bearer of the flag from the beginning / Now who would have believed this riot girl’s a cynic?”). The intellectual focus slips as Anderson moves on to Hanna’s later projects, including disposable electro-pop group Le Tigre, but The Punk Singer builds significant emotional momentum during this section, covering the singer’s personal, sonically diverse solo palette cleanser Julie Ruin and her subsequent illness.
Anderson’s awe is both a blessing and a curse; her insatiable energy drives the doc, but it is also used as a substitute for any formal ambition. The line between capturing Hanna’s energy and using it as a crutch is tenuous, but it ultimately doesn’t overly hinder the power of the message. In a discursive liberal culture increasingly driven by ideology, The Punk Singer will inevitably be seized upon by some as a myopic statement piece, but it’s too inclusively open-hearted for such cynical positioning. It’s a celebration of creativity and sheer force of will, with the image of a defiant Hanna on a hospital bed in Converse trainers and a Black Flag t-shirt is one of the most stirring of the year.
For more info about Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, visit dogwoof.com/thepunksinger.