This week sees the altogether brief release of documentary The Punk Singer (running a seven day stint at the IFI), a film that follows the career of boisterous frontgirl Katherine Hanna and her rise to the forefront of the 90’s punk scene and beyond. With outfits like Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna has cemented her place as one of the most remarked female voices in music, a key instigator of the Riot grrrl movement and the crucial emergence of third-wave feminism. Inhabiting the same Northwestern circles that saw the ascendance of grunge through bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana, Hanna’s story is perhaps lesser known, shadowed by the colossal success of those all-male troops, but certainly no less interesting. The political potency of her lyrics spurred on by her fiery and almost menacing onstage presence epitomise the sum of all patriarchal fears; a woman empowered and in control. But as director Sini Anderson’s intriguing study shows, characters are more complex than the performative mask they wear.
Charged with a soundtrack of booming bass and quickfire percussion, The Punk Singer will leave you slapping away at that air-guitar for days on end, a mishmash of grainy archive footage and talking heads that seeks to explore the enigmatic force that is Hanna. As a character study, it works particularly well; Hanna is at once compelling, gorgeous, captivating but also frightening, scarred and deeply insecure. In a film concerned primarily with the expression of womanhood, we find it also taps into the more profound issues of identity and the sense of vulnerability consistently tied to it. Likewise, as Hanna herself asserts, the notion of feminism is not one that solely applies to women; it is rather a receptacle for all forms of oppression and isolation, a purveyor of ideas that stand to disintegrate the marginalising patterns of ‘the patriarchy, man’. ‘Girl Power’ has never seemed less contrived.
They say a good documentary is one of many facets. And on that level, The Punk Singer does not disappoint, scoping both the wider punk landscape of the time as well as examining its subject on a more personal and intimate level But, clocking in at just 80 minutes, there’s an inevitable sparseness to the film; it implicates the old critical cliché of not knowing what to say, but also not having enough to say in the first place. At times, the film appears a recounting of interesting, but largely irrelevant anecdotes that do little but bulk up the running time. At others, it wavers towards sap territory in a kind of bizarre, Dr. Phil-esque fashion, marring its sense of tonal consistency. To be even more cynical, one could pit it as a mere promotional vehicle for Hanna’s recent comeback under The Julie Ruin. It’s as if the film became lost in the intoxicating aura of its idols, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett among the interviewees, entranced by its own nostalgia, and in turn forgot to make its point. You too may be captivated by the head-banging marvellousness of The Punk Singer’s wonderful soundtrack. But, sadly it’s not enough to keep this meandering rock-doc afloat.