It took MTV less than a decade to put the lid on rock and roll’s coffin in the 1980s, for the record companies and promoters that had turned the raw, visceral animalism of that genre into a stadium-sized commodity took things to a whole new level once television began boosting the signal of that deadly siren’s song. Although punk tried to take the spirit of the movement back in the late-70s, a decade of music television, spandex, hairspray, and power-ballads muffled their war cry. Yet by the early 90s, a new rebellion began to foment in Seattle, and what would later be known as grunge arguably rescued rock and roll from the grave, and brought that genre back to the hungry masses.
The Punk Singer is a new documentary showing at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, and it argues that an important piece of rock and roll’s early-90s historical puzzle lies in the punk movement’s feminist roots, and its undisputed champion, Kathleen Hanna. A celebrated singer, songwriter, photographer, poet, and visual artist, Ms. Hanna’s work in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre earned her popular and critical acclaim for the better part of 15 years, yet the physical and emotional toll of leading the fight for gender equality took its toll on the woman, and led her to an early retirement in 2005.
The life and career of Kathleen Hanna both before and after this decision is the focus of The Punk Singer, which in 80 short minutes does an excellent job educating its audience on the nuances of an important musical movement, and its leader/muse. Yet as an investigation into how Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrrl movement affected society and the music industry as a whole, the documentary comes up decidedly short. Within the punk and indie rock communities, Ms. Hanna certainly seems to have inspired hundreds, if not thousands, yet the documentary’s lack of interviews with people outside this small sub-genre gives the film a somewhat limited scope.
Indeed, people like Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney offer kind and complimentary words, yet these would carry a lot more weight if they came from somebody outside the fem-punk scene. This isn’t to say that the interviews and testimonials about Kathleen Hanna’s influence are exaggerated or overstated, or that they don’t impress. Far from it. Joan Jett and Kim Gordon seem to think that Ms. Hanna was a fresh, fearless voice on the punk and rock scenes when Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were still trying to get gigs, and these are certainly women who know a thing or two about music.
Yet the best documentaries simultaneously educate and challenge, and while The Punk Singer definitely accomplishes the former, it abandons all pretenses of the latter. Scenes early in the movie that talk about the courage of Kathleen’s lyrics, and the importance of getting that out above all considerations for money or fame are inspiring and do justice to a woman who has dedicated her life to boosting womens’ self-esteem. Lyrics like those found in the Bikini Kill song “Double Dare Ya” say it all: “Hey girlfriend, I got a proposition. Goes something like this: Dare ya to do what you want. Dare ya to be who you will.”
Still, as empowering and fascinating as all of this is, it leads one to wonder if there is another side to the discussion, if not of the feminism issue, then of the way Kathleen went about it. As a film, The Punk Singer feels like something of a book report, for while it does a great job explaining all of the good work Kathleen did, and how the woman stayed true to her ideals, it never challenges the assumption that perhaps she could have done things differently, or better.
Some might say that this is a sensationalist critique, that it is akin to a reality show producer introducing drama where none exists so as to boost ratings. Yet if one is going to make a documentary film, or any film for that matter, shouldn’t there be some sort of conflict? Shouldn’t a movie be more than just a series of platitudes about how wonderful somebody is, and how courageous they’ve always been? This certainly isn’t a critique of Ms. Hanna or her work, yet the absence of any counter-point to the narrative in The Punk Singer almost leads one to dig for it.
For example, at one point the documentary explains how Kathleen instituted a total media blackout after reading a poorly-written USA Today article about her. Although The Punk Singer delves into some of the backlash this decision generated, it never concerns itself with an appraisal of this choice, or what it might have cost the movement. Further, the lack of any male interviews excepting Kathleen’s husband, Adam Horovitz, skews the argument a bit, and plays into popularly held notions of feminism as a girls-only club. To further the argument about how Kathleen has influenced and changed the music industry, The Punk Singer might have brought in some music industry heavies, or at the very least professional contemporaries like Dave Grohl, or maybe Beck, to speak on Hanna’s behalf: yet this is noticeably absent.
It’s a pity, too, because what this movie does, it does well. Kathleen Hanna does appear to have been a formative influence on punk and even mainstream rock and roll in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the work she’s done to promote women’s safety and equality is second to none within the music industry. Yet this is an argument that could be better, or at least more strongly made, if done so by someone other than what appears to be an obvious friend and champion.