The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s film about Kathleen Hanna, was my Day 2 highlight at SXSW.
Outside punk, riot grrl and feminist circles, Kathleen Hanna may be best known for providing Kurt Cobain with the inspiration for Smells like Teen Spirit – by spraying ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ (a deodorant for teenage girls) on his wall after a mega-binge. She didn’t drink for 6 years after that, so it must have been quite a night…
The feature-length documentary follows Hanna’s career from a spoken word artist through to a punk musician, becoming an ‘outspoken feminist icon’ en route. I was sceptical about the icon bit when I entered the auditorium /converted by the time I left.
In short, The Punk Singer is a summary of how a young woman with the voice of Polly Styrene and the looks of Elizabeth Taylor got from here Kathleen Hanna spoken word to here The Julie Ruin featuring Kathleen Hanna
Hanna first rose to attention in the US as the lead singer of punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre. As the voice of the riot grrl movement she also became famous as an outspoken feminist, able to articulate her own inconsistencies and compromises in a way that encouraged other young women to take control of who they are. The post screening Q&A featured more than a few fans who’d been ‘Girls to the Front’ – Hanna’s concert war cry to protect her female fans (and her self) from the growing violence and misogyny of the 1990s mosh pit. And there was one ‘men to the back’ guy, who had done what he was told back in the day but you sensed he still wasn’t quite sure why.
Hanna worked in a strip club to pay her student tuition fees. She struggled emotionally with acknowledging the pain of her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ in her childhood. And professionally she struggled on through a hectic US and European tour despite being visibly unwell. Laiprepaleset And then she married a Beastie Boy, but in fairness Adam does come across as a very good man.
These compromises and apparent inconsistencies were all grist to the tabloid mill. By 2005, a combination of ill health and having her life torn apart and misrepresented in the media led her to step back from recording and performance. Happily she’s now well on the roads to recovery and the recording studio.
Did I like the film? I thought the Lymes disease doctor (for that is what she was finally diagnosed with) had a wonderful deep and growly yankee voice. But I didn’t need to hear quite so much of it. As for Joan Jett‘s scary deep and growly voice – especially when filmed on the back seat of a limo bedecked with fairy lights – I could have listened all night.
Capturing the musical development of Hanna as an artist was fascinating – from the shaky video of her spoken word performances (better quality on film than the link above – sorry about that) through to the smoother melodies of Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, it’s all unmistakably and gloriously punk.
A quote from Kathleen Hanna: “Art revolves around creating something that isn’t there.”
Screened as part of the 24 BEATS PER SECOND strand at SXSW, The Punk Singer certainly celebrates 24’s aim to showcase the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians and their impact on social and political change. Soon to be released on DVD…
The Punk Singer
Director: Sini Anderson