The majority of musicians mellow out in popularity once they reach a certain point. Most of the time it’s because listeners are just prone to newer and younger artists, but some make an effort to leave the stage and studio entirely. Cat Stevens became Muslim and renamed himself Yusuf Islam; Sly Stone literally became homeless; and John Deacon, Christine McVie and Meg White decided music just wasn’t fun anymore before retreating back to their hometowns. While not a mainstream name, alternative music artist Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre took a notable absence from touring and recording in late 2005. Rather than write a public statement explaining her break to her large group of fans, Hanna got together with filmmaker Sini Anderson to shoot a retrospective on her life and career, as well explain her reason for disappearing from the public. Their documentary is called The Punk Singer.
In the era where punk and new wave were about to be replaced by grunge and R&B, college student Kathleen Hanna was studying photography, performing spoken word and being openly feminist. Male dominated bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were about to claim the next decade of music in Seattle, but by 1990, Kathleen had met two other girls and formed her own neo-punk band called Bikini Kill in Olympia. Most music fans of the generation might recognize Kathleen as the girl who inspired the song title of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but to young women from twenty years ago she was an icon and idol of the 3rd wave of feminism and girl bands. In 1998, Kathleen switched over to an electronic trio called Le Tigre right when teen pop was taking over.
The film begins with Hanna going into depth about her beginnings from a troubled relationship with her father, to an inspirational bond with her mother, to working as a stripper when she was a teenager. Hanna herself, along with other female artists such as Tamra Davis, Carrie Brownstein, Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, go into great depth through interviews and concert footage about Kathleen’s exposure to the horrors of sexism, violence against women and the need for feminism through rock music. Her movement would be coined ‘Riot Grrrl’ and continue to inspire younger female artists to this day (including fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson, who is interviewed in the film as well). Hanna made a point that Anderson interview mostly female commentators for her documentary, as her story and message apply to primarily women. The exceptions being husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and Bikini bandmate Billy Karren. What’s great and fitting about the lack of male presence is that it isn’t even noticeable until the end credits.
The big reveal that Kathleen ends the movie with is that she has had Lyme disease since 2000. In a heartbreaking sequence she explains how she struggled to not know what the pain and numbness she was feeling for half a decade before she was finally diagnosed. Tearing up, she explains how she lied to her bandmates and fans saying she felt uninspired and disinterested in music to keep continuing, when she was really too ill to carry on with the act. The feature almost takes a completely different turn when Kathleen admits to her illness and truth. Up until now, we had seen this restless rebel girl with a fake Valley girl accent become friends with Kurt Cobain, get punched in the face by Courtney Love and even collaborate with Joan Jett and Kim Gordon to music and the history of women. By the second act, it’s now a bittersweet tale of survival between Kathleen and Adam. Horovitz is shown being the one to give her medication and injections, and even went as far as shooting a scene himself that is a private moment between the two.
Within a matter of minutes, Hanna is shown as the spokeswomen for her generation of feminists, to a vulnerable person who can’t control her body’s afflictions. Fans and viewers probably aren’t expecting such a somber ending to a documentary that started out so amped and then to see their heroine weak. Fortunately, Hanna and Anderson don’t let the change in tone effect their film negatively. The Punk Singer is so much more than just another documentary on a rock musician’s life, but also sets awareness for sexism and feminism, and the overlooked issues of Lyme disease. The film shows Kathleen at her core: outspoken, radical and independent. Like a good documentary should, The Punk Singer can be fascinating to non-fans of Hanna, but will largely be appreciated the most by her following. After almost a full decade out of the spotlight, Kathleen Hanna comes back with a bang and then some.