What happens when punk rockers grow up? “The Punk Singer,” an affectionately spiky documentary about the life and provocations of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer for Bikini Kill and icon of Riot Grrrl feminism, at first reveals the now-40-something Hanna as an alarmingly sedate suburbanite. Then director Sini Anderson throws on a clip of her subject at a 1991 spoken-word event, howling “I’m your biggest nightmare come to life — a girl who won’t shut up!” The rest of the film makes clear that, decades later, despite health issues and a shockingly happy marriage, she still won’t.
“The Punk Singer” also makes one wonder where pop-culture feminism has disappeared to today, if only because Hanna’s confrontational tactics still feel like a short, sharp shock 20 years on. Formed in Olympia, Wash., in 1992 with Kathi Wilcox (bass), Tobi Vail (drums), and Billy Karren (guitar), Bikini Kill fused the aggressiveness of hardcore and the disenchantment of grunge, and Hanna’s lead vocals lashed the patriarchy (old and young) like a scourge.
She obliterated notions of female performance and sexuality, singing “Rebel Girl” at the top of her lungs in a cut-off shirt with “SLUT” written on her stomach. Bikini Kill pushed male moshers to the back of the crowd and called the girls up front to a safety zone by the stage; the movement spread to other bands and zines like Riot Grrrl and Bust, even as the mainstream press concentrated on the musicians’ bodies and invented tales of sexual abuse. Kurt Cobain was a fan, but no one talked about that. They talked about Courtney Love punching out Hanna backstage. Catfights sell more newspapers than radical gender critique.
“The Punk Singer” is a sometimes too-indulgent tour through Hanna’s life then and now, through post-Bikini Kill projects like her 1997 solo venture Julie Ruin and subsequent band Le Tigre. That group broke up in 2005, after which Hanna vanished from the scene into a mysterious illness; she uses Anderson’s film to publicly announce that she has been fighting late-stage Lyme disease since finally being diagnosed in 2010.
Anderson touches on aspects of Hanna’s private life, most notably her romance with and eventual marriage to ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, who’s a warmly loving talking head in the film. But most of “The Punk Singer” dwells on the West Coast/D.C. explosion of angry, empowering, deliriously noisy “girl rock” in the 1990s and on Hanna’s position at the forefront, singing in a “voice like a bullet” (her own description). If there’s a flaw to Anderson’s approach, it’s that not enough other bands and Third Wave feminist thinkers are name-checked; this is a big, unruly field that deserves its own movie.
Still, the interviewees are primarily women — rock critic Ann Powers, bandmates Wilcox and Vail, fellow punk singer Carrie Brownstein, fellow polemicist Lynn Breedlove, spiritual godmothers Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, spiritual godchild Tavi Gevinson of Rookiemag.com — not in an exclusionary sense but because they simply have the necessary perspective. Says Hanna late in the film, “When a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. As a woman I go to tell the truth and I have to negotiate how I’ll be perceived. Like there’s always a suspicion around a woman’s truth. Like we’re exaggerating.”
The hits (a relative term, to be sure) are heard, the music still sounds great, and the performance footage is as rough and riveting as it should be. As pointedly as “The Punk Singer” looks at the past, though, the movie’s uncertain where the energy of that original moment went and whether there’s a place for rambunctiously defiant feminism in a popular culture where female empowerment means Miley Cyrus twerking on national TV. So what’s the difference between that and a young Kathleen Hanna dancing with “SLUT” written on her stomach? (There is one.) And where are the riot grrrls of today? Maybe you should take your daughters to this movie, then ask them.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.