An increasing number of independent features are finding their breaks through crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter, and The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, one of the originators of the so-called Riot Grrrl movement, is no different. It may not play well to those who are not already sympathetic towards Hanna’s life and music, but for those who are, it’s a compelling compilation of archive clips, blasts of her ferocious musical talent (with bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now the Julie Ruin), and the de rigueur talking head commentaries from those who’ve lived with her, worked with her, or just been fans of her music. Hanna herself is interviewed as well (one gets the sense that she is partially an auteur of this particular vision) and it manages to avoid pure hagiography through her apparent caginess as a documentary subject. In many ways it seems like it’s the affliction she’s coped with over the last decade (Lyme’s Disease), and its corrosive effect on her musical creativity, which she feels gives her license to focus on herself as much as this documentary does. I may of course be projecting, but you get the sense from the interviews that she wouldn’t have felt comfortable just doing a piece about her place in musical history (which, let me be clear, is fascinating in itself), whether from humility or as a result of the way her position (as an outspoken woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena) has been distorted by the media; in this regard, it’s probably no coincidence that the majority of talking head interviews here are with women. And so it’s this enforced break in her career that came in 2005 which serves as the documentary’s linchpin, and it turns out to be a relatively dramatically satisfying one as well. The fact that she cancelled a planned appearance at the screening I went to, as well as her upcoming European tour, are clear indications that she hasn’t fully recovered (nor perhaps ever will) from this period of illness, but her recent undaunted musical output suggests there’s some hope for her and for her fans in the future.
Director Sini Anderson; Cinematographers Jennie Jeddry and Moira Morel; Starring Kathleen Hanna; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 14 May 2014.