I’ve never been the biggest Bikini Kill fan, although I’ve long thought “Rebel Girl” is one of those songs that would perfectly suit any 1990s low-budget independent film; you can almost picture scuzzy opening credits, lo-fi image quality and unmistakeable Gen-X attitude when listening to it. Indeed, this sort of attitude is the driving force behind Bikini Kill who, like all the best punk bands, weren’t exactly virtuosos with their instruments and it didn’t matter in the slightest. It was all fury and viciously contagious energy, and seeing footage of them performing in The Punk Singer reveals with utmost clarity why they, and in particular their lead singer Kathleen Hanna, were such a brick to the skull of anyone who got too close.
Hanna is the focus of the documentary, and we’re given a fast-paced, lively account of her journey from a charismatic art student driven to creating feminist collages almost too radical for her Pacific northwest college, to becoming one of the pioneering figures of the riot grrrl movement and a bona fide punk rock legend. Inspired not only by her own past of sexual victimisation but also the horror stories of others, she used music to give a voice to people who hadn’t been heard before, and played a vital role in initiating 3rd wave feminism in the ‘90s.
At Hanna’s request, the majority of the people interviewed for The Punk Singer were females, apart from Bikini Kill guitarist Billy Karren, Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and Leo Galland, the MD who diagnosed her with Lyme disease which caused her to quit music in 2005. As the rest of the interviewees consist of bandmembers from Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney, as well as Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and a host of zine writers, all of whom are friends and/or fans of Hanna, there’s a strong emotional pulse to the documentary’s narrative, as each insight into Hanna’s life is flavoured with a connection to the woman who shaped the lives of so many around her and beyond.
She’s succinctly summed up by her husband, who offers that onstage she was “like a car accident, you couldn’t look away. But like, a good car accident.” I can’t think of a better description of witnessing Kathleen Hanna in action, and after watching The Punk Singer I’d have jumped at the chance of seeing Bikini Kill live had I not been four years old when they broke up. This is one of those documentaries that’s teeming with positivity (most of it Hanna’s), alive in every way, and honestly quite inspirational.
The Punk Singer was directed by Sini Anderson and stars Kathleen Hanna and a cast of folks listed above. It lasts for 80 minutes and is distributed in the UK on DVD by Dogwoof. Originally released in 2013.