A fine biography of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin. The Punk Singer, directed by Sini Anderson, traces Hanna’s path as an artist from the formative college years of Bikini Kill to the present day, where, sadly, illness has stopped an otherwise creative and energetic artist from touring or producing work more regularly.
Structurally, Anderson crafts The Punk Singer out of the standard documentary tools; extensive interviews with the subject, talking heads ranging from fans to close friends and family, and archival footage from Hanna. What emerges more than anything is the sight of a singularly outspoken and resilient figure, unafraid of speaking out against injustice and standing up for herself or others, and also a damn good singer (for the record, before going into this doc, I had never actually heard any of Hanna’s music, but have heard plenty about it). The transition in the film’s second half to Hanna’s recent battles with illness is also well-handled—although the fact that it’s kept secret at the start of the film as if it’s a major twist when one could google it in seconds is a bit facetious—and it allows for an emotional depth to the film beyond standard rock-doc hagiography. Here is an artist, a lifelong creative, who has always sought control over their own decisions, laid low by their own body failing them through no fault of their own; Anderson treats the transition with respect, empathy, and understanding.
There are a handful of minor flaws in The Punk Singer. Although the film isn’t hagiographic and quite multi-faceted in its telling of Kathleen Hanna’s story, it is entirely lacking in a single dissenting voice. Considering that Hanna’s outspokenness has led to her receiving plenty of criticism from other feminists and progressives (obviously no one gives a shit if some dudebro is intimidated by her), it would have been interesting to include some of these voices. Additionally, there is almost no emphasis placed on the wider music world or of Hanna’s place in it. We are told some of what Riot Grrrl (the punk rock movement Bikini Kill and other female-centred bands were part of) stood for and why it occurred, but there’s no real sense of Hanna’s wider place in music history. She wasn’t the first female singer in punk, nor were Bikini Kill the first female punk band, and again, it would have been interesting to see where Hanna sees herself in this respect; you might even be forgiven for thinking she was the first female singer to lead a punk band, so focused is the film on Hanna. Despite that, The Punk Singer is still a well-crafted documentary about an interesting and engaging subject.