Here’s the deal: the Riot Grrrl movement is the most important era in the past two decades of music. A movement dedicated to taking over punk with feminist thought and energy, one of its co-founders Kathleen Hanna found herself the de facto face of the movement while fronting the band Bikini Kill.
The Punk Singer functions as a documentary of Hanna’s life as well as a historical document of a vital era in music. Riot Grrrl came into existence alongside feminism’s third wave, using fanzines to discover each other’s work and discuss vital ideas. It was a time where it was being asked if feminism was dead, and Riot Grrrl’s answer was a defiant, “FUCK NO!”
Dark-haired and beautiful with a Valley Girl lilt, Hanna was everything punk was seen not to be. And all the better; she befriended Kurt Cobain and spawned the name of Nirvana’s biggest song by spray-painting “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on a wall. Many assumed that Nirvana grew out of the hesher movement, when in fact he was a product of Riot Grrrl.
As the movement grew bigger, Hanna came under increasing fire. Clueless hack journalists would label them in all manner of sexist ways, attempting to define a movement founded on the principle of triumphant difference in a single, sweeping generalisation. Hanna would later revolutionise the idea of the concert space by commanding men—many of whom would thrash and injure those near them in mosh pits—to move to the back, and making women front and foremost in previously male-dominated spaces.
The stress of touring, financial insecurity, disagreements on ideas and ideals, and the attacks from a misunderstanding mainstream caused Bikini Kill to break up in 1997, which led to the formation of Le Tigre. Translating Riot Grrrl energy into celebratory party music to dance to, Le Tigre gained ever more success for Hanna (and ‘Deceptacon’ remains possibly the best dance song of the ‘00s—go on, disagree).
Come 2005, though, Hanna stopped performing and essentially disappeared from the music scene. The Punk Singer seeks to chart the course between Hanna’s college days in the late ‘80s through to her current projects, and all the intense tumult in between. Hanna has not led an easy life, but she has faced it all with the kind of ferocity you would expect from a woman who wrote the song ‘Suck My Left One’.
Her charm, brazen humour (including this glorious recent tweet), and palpable intelligence make the documentary a compelling delight. Including interviews with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of the iconic Sleater-Kinney, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and husband Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys, The Punk Singer is a must for all music fans, and really any socially aware person.
Director Sini Anderson has crafted a terrific documentary for her debut; the editing by Jessica Hernandez and Bo Mehrad blends concert footage seamlessly to great effect. The film flows and feels as alive as its subject. A woman whose voice is sorely needed has been brought back to life thanks in part to this film, and music—and cinema—are grateful for it.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.