Review: 'The Punk Singer'

To some, a film critic should encounter every film with an open-minded curiosity, with no underlying agenda or bias. We look at technique, casting, editing, the script, the film's place in history: all the things that make up the art of cinema. We're supposed leave our baggage at the door, even though the very best movies provoke passionate responses.

Similarly, documentarians are also traditionally supposed to be detached and bias-free, never mind that whatever they're studying something or someone so closely for so long had to catch their interest in the first place.

None of this holds true for "The Punk Singer." Director Sini Anderson set out to make a film about her friend Kathleen Hanna, the iconic feminist artist and musician. Anderson didn't spend one second talking to anyone who doesn't respect and care for Hanna, and people like me — people of all genders, persuasions, and ages, but perhaps especially those of us who came of age as women in the '90s when Hanna was fronting Bikini Kill — will find it hard to be unbiased about "The Punk Singer."

The film begins with grainy footage of Hanna doing a spoken word performance in 1991. "I am your worst nightmare come to life. I'm a girl that won't shut up," she's telling a crowd of onlookers in a gallery or art space. She begins stomping and shouting. "I'm going to tell EVERYONE!"

This was a shot across the bow. This was the very beginning of the confessional, confrontational style that was the hallmark of Bikini Kill and other feminist punk bands of that era. Living somewhere between autobiography and the teenage collective unconscious, these lyrics — sometimes screamed, growled, howled, or sung sweetly — were as ugly and rude as "Suck My Left One!" and as loving and joyful as "Rebel Girl," an ode to female friendship.

"The Punk Singer" is all of this and more. It's a portrait of Hanna in particular and her evolution as a musician and artist, from DIY 'zines and screamy shows at dingy punk clubs, to (slightly) more mainstream success with her band Le Tigre. It also gives an unprecedented look at Kathleen Hanna's personal life through extensive interviews that illuminate her background growing up, her friendships with other artists (including the late Kurt Cobain), her budding romance with now-husband Adam Horovitz, and lastly, the discovery that the mysterious and scary health problems that caused her to disband Le Tigre were from late-stage Lyme disease.

The interviews and footage of Hanna's performances are exciting and juicy, and they also help put the band into its political and social context as far as riot grrrl's place in feminist history. It's not until an hour in that "The Punk Singer" becomes more than an entertaining and educational documentary and takes on the form of a person drama.

Hanna disbanded Le Tigre because, as she told her bandmates, she didn't have anything left to say. She was just done. In one tearful interview, she tells the camera, "I lied when I said I was done. I knew I wasn't done. I just didn't want to face the fact that I was really sick. I wanted to have control over it. I wanted to tell everybody I had chose to stop, but I didn't choose."

The real reason for her hiatus, Lyme disease, was only revealed recently in conjunction with screenings of "The Punk Singer." In fact, she was diagnosed midway through filming, in 2010. This is when the movie becomes less political and even more personal. Hanna's frightening symptoms and the frustrations of dealing with specialists who continuously misdiagnose her creates a narrative shift that lends urgency to her story. Although we know she's alive and kicking — despite the ongoing effects of Lyme disease, she's touring with The Julie Ruin and doing tons of interviews for the movie, to boot — the fear is palpable.

One scene shot by Horovitz in the privacy of their own home shows Hanna an hour after she's taken her medication. It is, she says, so others know what it looks like, because it's so easily misdiagnosed, and because people don't understand how radically it can affect every part of your body, from speech problems to seizures. It would be presumptuous to say more than she looks obviously uncomfortable and is crying, but just seeing that — with Horovitz's hand just entering the frame to pat her on the leg — speaks volumes. The movie ends on a hopeful note, with the introduction of The Julie Ruin and Hanna's return to what she loves most: telling the damn truth, and inspiring others to do the same.

While Anderson, editor Bo Mehrad, and producer Tamra Davis ("Billy Madison," "Half Baked," "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child") have pulled together an impressive music documentary in its own right, there's no way it would have achieved this sort of honesty without the underlying friendships between Hanna and the filmmakers, or the radical openness of Hanna herself. "The Punk Singer" is a perfect storm. It is a love letter to Kathleen Hanna, to feminism, and to the fans, but it's also just a damn good movie.

SCORE: 9.0 / 10

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