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Grrrl’s story

‘Punk Singer’ details rise, fall, recovery of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer in the ’90s punk band Bikini Kill.

Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer in the ’90s punk band Bikini Kill.

Allison Michael Orenstein

NEW YORK — As Sini Anderson tells it, “The Punk Singer” started as a kind of double dare between her and Kathleen Hanna, fiery lead singer of the influential ’90s punk band Bikini Kill and cofounder of the riot grrrl movement. The documentary film, which opens on Friday for a weeklong run at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, is a portrait of Hanna’s career as a pioneering punk and feminist icon, as well as recent personal turmoil.

“I said, ‘Listen, I think it’s time that you told your personal story outside of a band,’” says Anderson, then a fledgling filmmaker. “I thought a lot people could really benefit from hearing her story — especially at this point in time, 20 years after she started making work.”

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Having largely receded from the public spotlight after unofficially retiring from Le Tigre in 2005, Hanna was at first hesitant, but agreed to consider Anderson’s proposal.

“A couple weeks later, she called me over to her studio in Chinatown and was like, ‘This totally freaks me out. But I think you’re right. If you make it, I’ll do it,’” Anderson recalls. “I was daring her to tell her story, and she was daring me to make the film.”

When Hanna first stepped away from Le Tigre, she told even close friends it was because she had said everything she wanted to say as an artist. The truth was far more complicated. Starting around 2004, Hanna he had been suffering from a mysterious illness that left her mentally and physically drained and sometimes barely able to walk or even speak.

Director Sini Anderson.

Heather Kennedy/Getty Images for SXSW

Director Sini Anderson.

‘People either, like, totally love her or totally hate her. It’s because she’s got such a powerful message and such a distinct aesthetic and voice.’

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“I was really, really sick. I was deteriorating very quickly, and I was only having a good week here or there,” Hanna says. “So that was a big motivator in agreeing to do the film. I was like, ‘This could be my last chance to tell my story.’”

It’s also why she chose to donate much of her personal archives to the fledgling Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University’s Fales Library several years ago.

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In late 2010, after six years of doctors misdiagnosing her with everything from Crohn’s disease, lupus, and multiple sclerosis to anxiety and depression, Hanna was finally told that she had late-stage Lyme disease. She underwent more than a year of intensive treatments and extended therapy. After a long recovery, she says she’s at her healthiest in years. She’s even been touring and recording again with a new band, the Julie Ruin, whose debut album, “Run Fast,” was released in September.

Known for an indie punk aesthetic and unique on-stage attire, today Hanna, 45, is dressed casually in jeans and a snug white sweater, with a large cursive “K” monogrammed on the front. Her shoulder-length hair is as black as jet-engine oil.

Despite her illness, it’s clear that Hanna hasn’t lost any of the fierce energy she displayed as a feisty, outspoken young punk singer elbowing her way into a male-dominated music scene and advocating for women’s place at the table. Her provocative, in-your-face performances and wailing voice made her a polarizing figure and a lightning rod for cultural critics.

“People either, like, totally love her or totally hate her,” Anderson says. “It’s because she’s got such a powerful message and such a distinct aesthetic and voice.”

She also grappled with a sometimes contentious relationship with the media. Still, her reemergence after a long time away has perhaps engendered a more measured outlook from the fiery performer.

“Because I’m older, I think I come off as more confident. And people are not asking me about being a stripper in my 20s,” she said of her time working as an exotic dancer in college to pay her bills. “It’s a more adult conversation. I also came at it with this renewed perspective of how lucky I am that people care enough to do interviews with me — instead of me being like, ‘Oh, this is such a drag’ or ‘People are being mean.’”

“The Punk Singer,” Anderson’s debut feature, chronicles Hanna and Bikini Kill bursting onto the scene in 1990 in Olympia, Wash., the female-centric vibe they fostered at shows, and her role in helping to spearhead riot grrrl, the underground feminist-punk movement of the ’90s. There’s old concert footage of Hanna bopping away, cajoling young women to the front of the stage, and confronting aggressive moshers in the pit. Viewers hear about Hanna coining the phrase “smells like teen spirit,” which her friend Kurt Cobain adopted as the title for Nirvana’s game-changing 1991 hit. She also discusses the sexual trauma she experienced, and her backstage altercation with Courtney Love at a 1995 Lollapalooza concert.

Anderson interviewed Hanna’s former band mates and contemporaries, the female rockers who influenced her, including Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, and the musicians whom she herself inspired. Her husband, Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, appears both in front of and behind the camera.

Exposing herself in such a nakedly personal way wasn’t always easy, but she says the illness may have helped her to open up.

“For the first half of filming, I thought I was [expletive] dying,” she says. “And when you think you’re dying, you will tell everyone the truth. If someone cuts in front of you in line, you will tell them to get the [expletive] out of your way, because you’re just like, ‘I only have so much time.’ ”

Her candor also extended to the intense nature of the collaboration between her and Anderson.

“There were lots of times that I got mad at her,” says Hanna. “I told her at the very beginning, ‘We’re gonna have conflicts. And we’re gonna have to work through them. There are still issues, but we’re still friends.”

In a strange twist of fate, Anderson herself was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease during production on the film. (She’s now working on a documentary about the disease.)

Anderson calls the making of the movie a “very feminist process.”

“What I mean by that is a willingness to sit down, to really pull things apart, and try to get to the deeper answer. I feel like that’s what good feminist art does,” she says. “One of my favorite parts of the film is Kathleen showing this side of herself that isn’t totally resolved about certain issues. When we see our heroes being unresolved, it makes them more human, and it feels possible for us to do the things that we want to do. It’s empowering to see.”

Hanna says that she’s pleased with how the film turned out, but feels like the good-news conclusion to her story didn’t actually make it onto the screen. “I kind of have this fantasy of, like, someone watching the movie, and then maybe the next day coming to see us play a show and thinking, ‘There it is. There’s the happy ending.’”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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