The Punk Singer is Kathleen Hanna's life story so far, but it's also a coming out journey of sorts. Directed by Sini Anderson, the film chronicles Hanna's years pioneering riot grrrl with Bikini Kill, recording as Julie Ruin, and performing in Le Tigre, with interviews by Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Kim Gordon, Tavi Gevinson, and more. But it also offers a look into Hanna’s life today, offering details about health struggles that she had previously kept private.
Anderson does an exceptional job contextualizing Hanna’s role in the riot grrrl movement, using news reports of current events that fueled its participants, plus offering an explanation of first and second wave feminism. Among the many archival clips here are early footage of Hanna doing spoken word in Olympia and of the Jenny Holzer-inspired visual art and photography she produced in college. At one particularly powerful moment, Hanna demands, “All girls to the front! I’m not kidding!”
Lighter moments of the film explain the radical element of speaking with a Valley Girl tone, or find Hanna’s husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, recalling the first time he watched the early Hanna interview she conducted in a ski mask. He calls her home-recorded 1997 Julie Ruin LP a “masterpiece” and says it’s the record that made Kathleen a real musician. (Hanna also recalls inspiring Horowitz to give his 1999 MTV Awards speech in response to the rapes that year at Woodstock, and helping to write the speech.)
But the film progresses into more somber shades as Hanna recalls the tons of hate mail she received during Bikini Kill, telling her to die. Friends worried about her safety. And when Bikini Kill ended in 1997, it was not without tension.
Hanna ultimately reveals that she is currently suffering from late stage Lyme disease. Health concerns, not spent songwriting, caused her to pause Le Tigre. “I lied when I said I was done,” Hanna says.”I just didn’t want to have to face the fact that I was really sick. I was told by my body that I had to stop.”
"I told the world that I chose to stop playing music," she said. "That felt better than facing the reality of not being able to do what I love more than anything in the world."
The footage is emotional, following Hanna to the doctor’s office. One diaristic clip shot by Hanna documents the debilitating after effects of her medication; she cries, illustrating why she couldn’t be on stage then. It’s moving to hear Hanna speak of how she has struggled with a disease that few people understand, but she compares it to her lifelong feminism. She understands it, and that matters. This is fearless independence applied anew.