The Punk Singer

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

5/5 (1)

“The Punk Singer” is the new documentary about the singer Kathleen Hanna directed by Sini Anderson. The film is a colorful and comprehensive portrait of Hanna as a creative individualist and her impact on the Washington State-Seattle music scene of the 1990s.

Hanna was born in 1968 in Portland, Oregon. By her own admission, her mother was a fearless sadist. Hanna tells an opening story where she fell backward into her mother’s arms, only to have her mother move away on purpose. “I want you to learn,” she said, “don’t trust anyone, not even your mother.”

Hanna also admits that her father made inappropriate passes to her.

Her parents divorced.

In high school, Hanna became interested in fashion and photography. she created her own artworks using xeroxed images in the manner of Basquiat, yet with her own distinctive style: boldly graphic with strong edgy line work in black and white.

In college, she met the cult sci fi writer Kathy Acker who convinced her to start a rock band to document her feelings. During this time, she met Tobi Vail and the band Bikini Kill was born. Bikini Kill played at music festivals and at protests highlighting domestic abuse. Bikini Kill has the distinction of playing just outside the U.S. Capitol during a protest rally.

Hanna is a unique performer for the fact that she moves all female concertgoers to the front of the audience while all of the male audience waits at the back. It’s only fair she reasons, since males have had privilege far too long without question or reproach.

Hanna is an engaging character, a restless engine with Elizabeth Taylor eyes. Compelling it is to learn that it was Hanna who gave Kurt Cobain the title for his song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Through Cobain and the band Sonic Youth, Hanna gains notoriety, but she also receives death threats due to her uncompromising lyrics and music.

Hanna sings gig after gig with restless, relentless energy. She is unstoppable. She falls in love and marries Beastie Boys’ founder Adam Horovitz.

Then suddenly without warning, Hanna doesn’t feel well and realizes that she can’t sing or speak, let alone think clearly. Shockingly, as if overnight, Kathleen Hanna transforms from punk role model to medical mystery.

Rocker Joan Jett and the surrealist musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein of Television’s Portlandia are featured here along with the ghost of Kurt Cobain and it is good to see him and to learn that his roots are not with the male dominant punk rock of the 1970s, but rather with a new Sci-fi feminist movement, with all of Nirvana’s emphasis on body dysmorphia, isolation and childbirth.

Kathleen Hanna emerges as an ever evolving creator. By the end of the documentary her own body, seeming to rebel against itself becomes a living art piece, birthed anew out of the struggle of Punk.

Every devotee of liberation and anger among us can breathe a bit easier knowing that Hanna lives on today, still resisting the status quo and still producing her own eccentric noise.

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