However deserving its subject may be, “The Punk Singer,” a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the singer-songwriter credited with being a founding member of the riot grrrl movement, is more fawning than illuminating.
Riot grrrl, a feminist movement that began in the early 1990s in Washington state and Washington, D.C., had a foundation in punk-rock music, independently produced ’zines and grassroots gatherings of like-minded women.
Band mates, peers and the singer’s Beastie Boy husband, Adam Horovitz, praise Hanna. They do so redundantly in an ill-formed film that mostly lacks evaluation of the music Hanna made with Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now The Julie Ruin.
Hanna, shifting from spoken word performances to music, formed Bikini Kill in 1991 while she was a student at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash. The group’s other members were drummer Tobi Vail, bassist Kathi Wilcox and, a lone male, guitarist William Karren.
Wilcox recalls in “The Punk Singer” that the band, following the punk template established by Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols in the ’70s, initially was known for not being able to play its instruments. But they clearly make musical progress as time goes by.
Hanna’s instrument was her voice. She quickly assumed the primal, percussive vocal style of the early British punks, and she let loose a powerful wail.
Bikini Kill’s innovation was merging punk rock with feminist messages. Hanna, a victim of sexual abuse, wrote and sang lyrics about that, as well.
In raw video from Bikini Kill’s early performances, Hanna proclaims, “All girls to the front. I’m not kidding.” A statement about the male-dominated world of punk and rock music. “We’re Bikini Kill, and we want revolution,” she says.
“Every show we played was like a war,” group member Vail says, although the film contains little evidence of battles.
Band mate Wilcox, one of several collaborators and admirers, declares that the singer is the perfect punk person. Carrie Brownstein, Hanna’s peer in Sleater-Kinney, describes Bikini Kill as “music as a voice for a lot of people who hadn’t been heard before.” An admirable accomplishment.
Other, less clear testimonials come from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Joan Jett. And it’s explained that the mainstream press just doesn’t understand.
Hanna gives extensive interviews to director Sini Anderson.
“What is the story of my life?” she asks. “I have no idea. I just think that there’s a certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth, and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.”
Neither Hanna as an apparent icon of feminism nor her musical work is particularly well-explained in “The Punk Singer.”