Tuesday, June 4, 2013

SIFF '13 Review: 'The Punk Singer'

Good god, watching “The Punk Singer,” Sini Anderson’s new documentary about Kathleen Hanna, makes me feel like I’m 16. This movie brings back vivid memories of mail ordering seven-inches I read about in crappy photocopied zines that I picked up at basement shows, sending a few carefully concealed bills, hoping I’d actually get one of those records that changed my life every couple of months. There were more than a few times where a random package arrived in the mailbox and it was a record I sent for six or eight months earlier and completely forgot about. Groups of us sat for hours in one or another of our bedrooms, annoying the shit out of anyone else in the house, making endless mix tapes of each other’s records.

That's what “The Punk Singer” calls to mind. It was one of these brown paper packages—sorry Julie Andrews, no string to speak of—that delivered my first Bikini Kill record. The first time my ears heard those harsh, fuzzed out guitars, with Hanna screaming her ass off over the top, is one of those moments that sticks with you. Hanna—one of the founders of, and key players in, the Riot Grrrl movement—her uncompromising radical feminist politics, and general badassness, was a breath of fresh air in a punk scene generally dominated by macho dudes flailing around in a mosh pit. There weren’t many acts this in your face, with so much earnest and distilled rage, especially in such a diminutive, not to mention female, package. There’s so much energy in those relatively simple anthems, and it’s still nigh impossible to hear songs like rebel girl and not feel the need to move.

“The Punk Singer” delves into Hanna’s personal history, into the forces that forged her political and artistic sensibility, through interviews with friends, band mates, music critics, and compatriots like Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, and Adam Horowitz. Hanna wound up marrying that last one. The doc also offers a bit of a crash course in feminist history, hitting as far back as the 1840s, and continuing through the third wave that emerged in the 1990s. An overall narrative arc traces Hanna from the early days through her post Bikini Kill projects Julie Ruin and Le Tigre (I also have to question why I don’t own these records anymore). Eventually you get to the health problems that forced her to quit performing in 2005, and more recent endeavors.

Early on, “The Punk Singer” focuses more on a larger social movement. Filtered through the experience of one key player, the story and topic feels bigger than a single person. This is where the movie works best and is the most engaging. As you progresses, the scope narrows and zooms in more closely on Hanna, creating a more personal intimate feel. While that’s cool, it’s most interesting to fans looking for an update and a little insight. This is where you start to feel like you’ve seen this a time or two before, the story of one person against great odds. Again, that’s all well and good, but compared to the energy and force of the first part, the pace and tempo take a definite hit.

The film itself is strong, if standard, documentary fare. Hanna is an intriguing subject. Outside of certain social circles she may not be a household name, but she left an indelible imprint on a generation, specifically of young women, and her legacy still kicks around. But what “The Punk Singer” does best is capture the excitement, passion, and the conviction that is still evident on those records, and that you saw at those live shows. The collection of archival footage is fantastic, and I could sit back and watch that all day long. 

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