The grrl’s guide to act­ing up

This por­trait of a mad-as-hell mu­si­cal fem­i­nist who wouldn’t take crap from any­body is an up­lift­ing, un­for­get­table doc­u­men­tary, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -


Di­rected by Sini An­der­son. Fea­tur­ing Kathleen Hanna, Joan Jett, Adam Horovitz, Tamra Davis, Billy Kar­ren Club, IFI, Dublin, 83 min

The Punk Singer be­gins as it means to go on: with a fem­i­nist bat­tle-cry from Kathleen Hanna circa 1991: “I am your worst nightmare come to life. I’m a girl that won’t shut up. I’m go­ing to tell ev­ery­one!”

Thus be­gan the age of the riot grrl, a noisy, lib­er­at­ing thrust to­wards gen­der equal­ity and rock­ing good tunes. Mu­si­cally, Hanna’s Bikini Kill (and her sub­se­quent ad­ven­tures with Le Ti­gre and Julie Ruin) was post-DC punk, post-Pix­ies and post-no wave, a noisy, re­bel­lious sis­ter to grunge’s sludgier sounds. Cul­tur­ally, it was a fu­ri­ous re­sponse to date rape, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and an in­creas­ingly sex­u­alised world.

Twenty years on and the riot gr­rls are hav­ing a mo­ment. Two re­cent pub­li­ca­tions (Sara Mar­cus’s Girls to the Front and Marisa Meltzer’s Girl Power) have re-ex­am­ined and chron­i­cled the hitherto un­her­alded im­por­tance of this sassy sub­cul­ture. New York Univer­sity is cur­rently col­lect­ing zines and other documents for a riot gr­rrl ar­chive. And now we have Sini An­der­son’s won­der­fully in­ti­mate bio­graph­i­cal por­trait of Hanna.

The Punk Singer re­tains the DIY, hand­made qual­i­ties of the very move­ment the for­mer Bikini Kill mouth­piece helped birth. The girls are all present and ac­counted for: JD Sam­son and the rest of Hanna’s Le Ti­gre crew, the Sleater-Kin­ney nexus, and Queen Joan of Jett.

’Zines, a vi­tal com­po­nent of grrl cul­ture, are ex­plained for younger view­ers and, by way of trib­ute, the film’s budget was pro­vided through Kick­starter and a ben­e­fit con­cert by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gor­don. Pro­ducer Tamra Davis, a friend of the di­rec­tor and the sub­ject (both Davis and Hanna are mar­ried to for­mer Beastie Boys) com­pletes the cir­cle.

There’s plenty here to savour for any­one with an in­ter­est in fem­i­nism or mu­sic or any­thing at all. Hanna, af­ter all, is the woman who put Kurt Cobain in a dress and who coined the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. But this isn’t a look at a girl­ish un­der­cur­rent be­neath rock. In com­mon with Hanna her­self, The Punk Singer puts women right in the mosh­pit where they be­long; boys to the back, thank you.

Like any good riot grrl project, the po­lit­i­cal gives way to the per­sonal. Much of the film is given over to the ten­der ro­mance be­tween Hanna and her hus­band, Adam Horowitz, who tends to her daily as she bat­tles the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of Lyme dis­ease. He’s the only man in the film, in ac­cor­dance with Hanna’s wishes.

That is as it should be. As Hanna once ob­served: “I’m not go­ing to sit around and be peace and love with some­body’s boot on my neck”. A fit­ting ode to one of the late20th century’s most im­por­tant voices.

Get your boot off my neck: Kathleen Hanna in 1996

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