SIFF 2013 Face The Music Preview: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer
Directed by Sini Anderson
(USA, 2013, 80 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Friday, May 24, 9:30 PM at Harvard Exit
Sunday, May 26, 1:30 PM at Harvard Exit

The Punk Singer, director Sini Anderson’s first feature-length film, is based on stories of Kathleen Hanna, feminist, activist, multimedia artist and performer, and band member of Northwest punk groups Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Unsurprisingly, the movie features a great soundtrack and incredible, hi-tension live footage, complete with an insider look at the Riot Grrrl movement as it has been rarely exposed before in film.

The film opens with a spoken word performance, based on an attempted rape of her best friend, as she recites “I’m your worst nightmare came to life. I’m a girl you can’t shut up, there is not a guy big enough can handle this mouth.” After one of her favorite writers, Kathy Acker, tells her “No one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band”, she goes home and starts a band. That’s when in the movie Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” kicks in, and you’re like f**k yeah! as your head starts spinning.

Often tense, edgy, and emotional, the interviews with Hanna eventually reveal the truth behind her sudden hiatus from performing in 2005. Additional interviews from Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill), Johanna Fateman and JD Samson (Le Tigre), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Joan Jett, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boy), and others provide further insight as the film explores a great deal about feminism, double standards against women, violence, sexuality, and female empowerment. But most of all it really shows Hanna to be a kick ass punk singer.

“Dare ya to do what you want / Dare ya to be who you will / Dare ya to cry right out loud”

For those who don’t know, Bikini Kill was originally the name of ultra DIY feminist fanzine hand made by Hanna and Tobi Vail but later became the name of their band, formed in Olympia, WA, in early 90’s. Today, Bikini Kill is synonymous with the Riot Grrrl movement, recognized as a core part of Third Wave of Feminism. Hanna first became interested in feminism around the age of nine, after her mother took her to a rally in Washington, D.C., where she saw feminist icon Gloria Steinem speak. Throughout her own career, she used her own loud voice to bring feminist ideas to the stage.

“In Bikini Kill I was singing to an elusive asshole male that was fucking world over and I was allowing to other woman to watch me do that. And I really wanted to start directly singing to other woman.”

In The Punk Singer, we see the turmoil brought to screen: Hanna telling female audience members to take the front of stage and male audience members to be cool and move their moshing farther back, sometimes creating a hostile environment. The band even described their live show as a constant battle in a war zone. As she was loved and hated for her radical feminist lyrics and in your face stage attitude, many men in the punk scene couldn’t stand her guts and some women even called her a man-hater. To both she replied, “We got a fucking right to be hostile, and I’m not gonna sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s boots on my neck.”

When the media started take an interest in Hanna and Riot Grrrl movement, it was another kind of beast they had to deal with. Reporters twisted facts just to sell papers. Hanna soon realized that many reporters didn’t even check their facts and published completely distorted articles. Once, a Washington Post reporter, who never even spoke to Hanna, wrote that she was raped by her father. (In the film, she assured everyone: “My Father did not rape me.”) The band and most Riot Grrrl groups stopped taking media interview requests; it was a Media Blackout. However damage was done....

“If they don’t wana care or believe in it stay out of my way.”

The film goes on to cover her Bikini Kill’s breakup in 1997, her marriage to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (“You can’t control who you falling love with”), her solo project as Julia Ruin, the formation of Le Tigre, and that band’s sudden hiatus in 2005, which turned out be a result of her contracting Lyme disease, finally diagnosed in 2010.

At one point, Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, reads the line from Riot Grrrl Manifesto by Kathleen Hanna: “Because Us Girls crave records, books, and fanzines that speaks us that we feel included in and can understand in our own ways. Because I believe with my whole heart mind body that girl constitute revolutionary soul force that can and will change the world for real.” This is the very essence of the film. Go see The Punk Singer with your friends, your spouse, your sons, your daughters. It’s one of the best music biopics ever!

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