Kathleen Hanna became a singer because she had something to say and she wanted people to listen, she explains in Sini Anderson’s documentary “The Punk Singer.” She certainly got her wish when she became frontwoman of Bikini Kill, the influential 1990s punk band that shout-sang about female empowerment in a way that was impossible to ignore.
Hanna is a worthy documentary subject with an electrifying stage presence. That she has shielded herself from public view in recent years makes “The Punk Singer” all the more intriguing. Most of the movie focuses on Hanna’s stint in Bikini Kill, although she’s made (less angry) music since the band’s break-up in 1997, both solo and with the bands Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin.
When Bikini Kill formed in 1990, there were memories of second-wave feminists but no clear successors. Then along came Hanna and her bandmates, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail. Not only did they make songs that compelled fans to yell along, but they also spurred the riot grrrl movement.
During Bikini Kill performances, Hanna — often decked out in miniskirts or underwear, sometimes with the word “slut” scrawled across her bare stomach — commanded female fans to come up front and sing along to the likes of “Rebel Girl” and “Liar.” Men could stand in the back, and if they got disorderly, they got the boot after a public shaming from Hanna. Her vocal opinions made people sit up and listen (including the District’s own Ian MacKaye of Dischord Records) and paved the way for bands that include Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot, the Russian group whose rabble-rousing landed three of its members in prison. Her approach also incited death threats and erroneous newspaper articles, hate mail and an out-of-the-blue punch in the face from Courtney Love.
The way Hanna burst onto the scene is just as interesting as how she faded from it. Anderson appears to have all the access she wants to the musician, whose Valley Girl lilt turns out to be a deceptive veneer over grounded wisdom. Hanna, who struggled for years with a mystery illness (eventually revealed to be Lyme disease), keeps a low profile with her husband, Adam Horovitz (also known as Ad-Rock to Beastie Boys fans), although there’s some indication that she’s starting to break out of that shell.
To round out the story, Anderson secured a stellar roster of interviewees, many of whom say their piece from inside of a van, sitting on a plaid blanket under a string of lights. Joan Jett drops in, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth offers her take; Carrie Brownstein discusses the impact of Bikini Kill, and Hanna’s former bandmates reminisce. Anderson clearly has a deep respect for her subject, although sometimes the plethora of old photos and the shots of Hanna looking off in the distance feel like they verge on hero worship.
Despite that quibble, “The Punk Singer,” like the best documentaries, captures more than just its subject, fascinating though she may be. Anderson manages to capture the feel of an era and the excitement surrounding a fresh feminist voice.