Kathleen Hanna cut a formidable path throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s as the co-founder of the riot grrl movement, frontwoman of genre-defining punk band Bikini Kill, and member of progressive electro-pop trio Le Tigre. Then in 2005, she abruptly stopped performing and kept a much lower profile—a surprising move for someone who had been a firebrand for nearly two decades.
Or perhaps it wasn’t, because Hanna had spent such a long time in a withering spotlight, serving as the occasionally controversial, always outspoken public face of a movement that made people uncomfortable (and elicited derision from all sides). As someone asks early into Sini Anderson’s new documentary The Punk Singer, “What happened? Why has she forsaken us? What did we do that was so bad?”
The Punk Singer answers that question, but not until its third act. The story of Hanna’s life, from her childhood through the founding of riot grrl and Bikini Kill are compelling, though Anderson seems much more interested in the story once it gets to Hanna’s formative college years at Evergreen State College. Although she hits on some important aspects of Hanna’s childhood, including her “sadistic and funny” mother and her “sexually inappropriate” father, that part of the story feels incomplete, especially considering the physical and emotional (and potentially sexual) abuse Hanna references later in the film. It’s possible, even likely, that she didn’t want to discuss it in more detail, but it still feels like an important part of the story didn’t get enough attention.
That’s not an issue elsewhere in Anderson’s adoring film, which spends a lot of time on riot grrl and Bikini Kill, the two things most associated with Hanna. The director also takes pains to contextualize what’s on screen, going as far as to define what a fanzine is, clarify the three waves of feminism, and explain the importance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (whose title came from graffiti Hanna wrote while hanging out with friend Kurt Cobain). The macro focus leaves some details unexplored; Anderson doesn’t go too deep into the minutiae of Bikini Kill’s and Le Tigre’s stories—how many albums they released, for instance—which can make some of her quotes from interview subjects unclear. When Le Tigre member JD Samson mentions their tour for This Island, only viewers familiar with the band will know she means its 2004 album, because it goes unmentioned otherwise.
When The Punk Singer finally gets around to the health issues that sidelined Hanna in 2005, it finds her at her most vulnerable and emotional. Her worsening symptoms were misdiagnosed for years, but even once Hanna learned she had a particularly debilitating form of late-stage Lyme disease, her health remained an issue (and continues to do so).
The Punk Singer ends with a 2010 tribute concert held in Hanna’s honor that featured the debut of her new band, The Julie Ruin. A final montage set to that band’s “Ha Ha Ha” closes the film on a powerful, optimistic note. Hanna has a compelling story, and Anderson is clearly in awe of her subject. Although not an outright hagiography, her film has nothing in the way of dissent, which wouldn’t have been hard to come by for Kathleen Hanna. That didn’t seem to cross the director’s mind; she clearly intended for The Punk Singer to celebrate the life of a punk icon. A little more distance could have been beneficial, but The Punk Singer is enlightening regardless.