Director: Sini Anderson
Cast: Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: May 23rd
The Punk Singer is a documentary that charts the career of the feminist art-punk icon, Kathleen Hanna, but it struggles to portray both the myth and the mortal.
Hanna found fame in the nineties as the dynamic lead singer of punk outfit Bikini Kill and the electro-punk band Le Tigre. She was also a co-founder of the feminist underground movement, riot grrl, and a vocal and uncompromising voice on feminist issues.
An outspoken icon who refused to bow to convention seems like a brilliant subject for a documentary but she actually ends up getting slightly lost in the film’s efforts to honour her.
The documentary boasts a wealth of archive footage and it uses it with good effect to illustrate what made Hanna such a compelling character on the contemporary music scene. Sadly, the forceful energy that we see on stage and the intellectual ferocity that we see in older footage are rarely translated into Hanna’s interviews in the opening two thirds of the film.
One reason for this is that Hanna’s voice gets somewhat lost in the swirl of talking heads who sing her praises.
There are occasional hints at her complex and unconventional nature, such as when she compares being a feminist who worked as a stripper to being a vegetarian who worked in McDonalds. Yet the film drifts past darker episodes in Hanna’s past that surely deserved some more exploration.
The barrage of old clips and relentless line-up of talking heads almost drowns out her own contributions and leaves insufficient space to give us a real insight into the woman behind the public figure.
The consequence of this is that there is an awkward transition when the film suddenly changes focus and looks at the illness that forced her to retire from music.
The audience still isn’t emotionally invested in Hanna’s story by the time the spotlight shifts to her struggle with Lyme Disease, which remained undiagnosed for years. It’s easy to sympathise with her on a cerebral and a human level but it’s difficult to fully relate to this elusive character.
Her eventual return to the stage isn’t quite the climactic moment that it should be and the film is reduced to being a glowing homage that belatedly attempts to humanise the person that it has deified. The footage of Hanna and her husband (Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys) does offer some genuine moments of tenderness and she does open up about the impact of the disease but these seem like fleeting moments in the overall context.
Ultimately, the film leaves the audience with a fractured vision of Hanna as rock star and victim. It offers a celebration of an inspiring figure and an informative look at a musical movement but it never quite drills down into the essence of its subject.
The best rockumentaries celebrate a musician’s work while also giving us a genuine insight into the person who walks off the stage. The Punk Singer never quite manages this trick and there’s a residual feeling that its subject had more to offer.
“What is the story of my life?” Hanna asks near the end of the film.
“I have no fucking idea.”
This documentary fails to provide any definitive answers.