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Film Review: 'The Punk Singer' Who Influenced Rock Stars More Famous Than Her

Allison Michael Orenstein

On the basis of Sini Anderson's enlightening and electric documentary The Punk Singer, many will come to consider its subject, Kathleen Hanna, one of the most influential musicians they've never heard of. But they can't walk away forgetting her.

From her 1990's punk band Bikini Kill to her status as a founding mother of the riot grrrl movement to her current project, The Julie Ruin, Hanna has put her indelible stamp on countless rockers and artists much more famous than her. And she might have harbored bitterness about that were she not so full of joi de vivre and musical vitality, and so sincerely invested in the successes of like-minded others.

Hanna's first band, Bikini Kill, was a female-fronted punk band that created more tremors than hit singles. What fired her up more than name recognition, though, was making sonic noise with a point of view: feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay, and anti-establishment. That bled into the riot grrrl movement, built on the premise that female artists had to loudly fight for equity. Concurrently, she personalized female empowerment with a stint as a stripper, choreographed on her own terms and epitomized by her unironic opening number, Control by Janet Jackson.

Her follow-up group, Le Tigre, made more of a splash in Europe than the States, while her new band, The Julie Ruin, is brash and discordant and urgent. At points along her journey, she made satisfying personal choices (like falling in love with and marrying Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys) and profound bonds with such artists as Kurt Cobain. The film offers evidence of the latter with an anecdote and a photograph taken on the night she spray painted on his bedroom wall "Kurt Cobain Smells Like Teen Spirit," a phrase that did him and the grunge movement proud.

The last third of the film takes an unexpected turn. Hanna shares her battle with Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that carries undue stigma and is often misdiagnosed or confused with such ailments as multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue syndrome. It made her very sick for quite a while; it even had the power to keep her quiet and temper her passions. That she has recovered is but one joyous high point in a film chockful of them.


The Punk Singer | Dir. Sini Anderson | 80 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas in Westport


Up To Date Arts & CultureFilm
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.