Movie review: 'Punk Singer' chronicles life of a Riot Grrrl


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Here's a great way to increase the odds that your daughter will grow up to be some type of punk rock rebel -- but be careful because it could backfire in unintended ways.

After she does a song and dance at the talent show, and she thinks you're really proud, get in the car and say, "We should all go out and get ice cream, because anyone who could make such a fool of herself in front of so many people deserves an ice cream."

'The  Punk Singer'

Rating: Unrated but R in nature for language, crude content.


According to Kathleen Hanna, that's what her father did.

To her enormous credit, rather than growing up a wallflower, she launched the Riot Grrrl movement as the screaming singer of Bikini Kill.

She relates that anecdote in "The Punk Singer," a documentary from first-time filmmaker Sini Anderson that played the Three Rivers Film Festival and now returns for a five-day run.

The revelation that dominates that latter part of the film is that the singer's career, with follow-up band Le Tigre, was blindsided in 2005 by the onset of Lyme disease brought on by a tick bite.

Needless to say, the early part of "Punk Singer" is a bit more upbeat. It depicts how the Portland, Ore., native repurposed her spoken word act for the punk rock stage. From Joan Jett to Patti Smith to Chrissie Hynde, punk rock never lacked for feminist energy -- something no one in the film addresses. Nonetheless, Bikini Kill, with limited musical skills, set out to reclaim it in the days of Anita Hill.

They not only raged against boys -- "We don't need you/us punk rock whores" -- they also dispatched them to the back of the room to keep the girl fans safe from their aberrant punk behavior. The message was driven home through a Riot Grrrl fanzine that came with a revolutionary manifesto written by Ms. Hanna, a former stripper with an erotic edge and a resemblance to Liz Taylor.

"It was like, 'Oh, music is supposed to be escapist,' " Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and NPR says of Bikini Kill. "And it wasn't. It was grounding it. It was making music a voice for a lot of people who hadn't been heard before."

Debuting soon after Nirvana, Bikini Kill became a force in the Olympia, Wash., scene. In fact, if Ms. Hanna hadn't scribbled on Kurt Cobain's wall, "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit," the '90s may not have been the same. (As an aside, Ms. Hanna's friendship with Cobain did not extend to his wife, Courtney Love, who sucker-punched her backstage at Lollapalooza in 1995.)

The Riot Grrrl movement got a rough ride from the mainstream media -- prompting a self-imposed "media blackout" -- and true to its DIY/anti-capitalist aesthetic, Bikini Kill never cracked the mainstream. The band made two studio albums over its eight-year run for Kill Rock Stars before disbanding in 1997, the same year Ms. Hanna began a relationship with Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock) of the Beastie Boys, a trio not known for its feminist leanings.

"Kathleen was like a full-on force, like a car accident you couldn't look away [from] -- like a good car accident," he said of her stage demeanor. They've been married since 2006.

It was a toned-down Kathleen Hanna that made the Julie Ruin solo album on a $40 drum machine in '97 and turned up a few years later with Le Tigre, an "electroclash" trio that couched her feminist lyrics in a New Wave party vibe. (While Bikini Kill never played Pittsburgh, Le Tigre did Club Laga in 2002 and Mr. Smalls in 2003.)

Filmmaker Anderson catches up with Ms. Hanna, looking beautiful and comfortable in her own skin at 44 while fighting through symptoms to relaunch The Julie Ruin as a band. She admits that she had kept her physical condition under wraps, telling people instead that she withdrew from music because she had "nothing else to say." Better that it be her choice, not the disease, she figures.

She's in good hands with the doting Mr. Horovitz, one of the few males in the film, at the subject's request. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, who helped fund the film, and Joan Jett, who produced Bikini Kill, are among the women interviewed.

As a documentary, it's standard stuff, built on old concert clips and talking heads, but like her Beastie Boy says, with Kathleen Hanna, you can't look away.

Opens Friday at Melwood Screening Room, Oakland.


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