By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
December 9, 2013 4:02PM
The punk singer in the new film “Punk Singer” is Kathleen Hanna, the architect behind both Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and who also happens to be one of the most exhilarating live performers in rock.
Her story is the subject of this documentary, a soft focus treatment of Hanna’s autobiography, from her college years in Olympia, Wash., to her emergence from the underground punk scene that brought with it a certain burden: Hanna became the poster child for “riot grrrl,” the proto-feminist movement that shunned both mosh-pit violence and media attitudes about women in rock.
As the film points out, not only was it unusual to have an all-women band onstage during the underground era of the 1980s, it was also unlikely to have one that so unabashedly talked about controversial topics: as controversial as rape, incest, and sexism.
The film, which opens at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N.Southport)Friday, takes great pains to show that what first became an exhilarating in its freedom — the archival video of early Bikini Kill performances is worth the price of the ticket alone — later became burdensome as Hanna says she became unfairly marginalized, not just by the glossy media treatments of the scene, but by other musicians who groused at her newfound fame.
“I was embarrassed I was getting so much attention. I felt I didn’t deserve it,” Hanna said recently in a phone interview. “I helped create this feminist music scene but I was only a part of it. A lot of people did a lot of the work to push our ideas through. I was one of the most vocal people in the scene and my face was everywhere and, in this very small, niche scene, people resented it. I felt I was taking it from all sides. I felt I was kicked out of my own community.”
“Punk Singer” is the first full-length documentary by Sini Anderson, a Brooklyn performance artist and Hanna friend. Anderson raised more than $60,000 on Kickstarter in 2011 to help fund the project, the filming of which started a year earlier. Anderson enlisted former bandmates, and Hanna friends and admirers such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Joan Jett, to deliver a series of endorsements of Hanna’s impact on modern-day feminism.
For Hanna, the film arrived at a time of reflection: She was archiving videos and paperwork related to her past history, and donating the collection to New York University. The urgency followed six years of living with Lyme disease, a diagnosis the film shows Hanna did not realize she had until a 2008 Planned Parenthood march in Washington where her body went numb and she thought she was having a stroke.
“I was getting really, really ill, sicker and sicker, and I already didn’t know what future held so I started wrapping stuff up,” she says, after learning about the diagnosis, which kept her out of the public eye. Donating her material to NYU was meant as a protective measure: “this stuff is going to get thrown into trash if anything happens to me.”
The film shows her isolation at home with husband and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, where she can’t control her speech and worries about seizures. But the film also includes a triumphant note: The Julie Ruin, a new band Hanna says she expects to bring to Chicago next year (“I love playing Metro,” she says). Unlike the punk thrash of Bikini Kill, and the party synths of Le Tigre, the new band is driven by guitars, and is the first band Hanna says she feel focuses on music, with no agenda at the forefront.
“I just want to be a (expletive) person in a band. I felt I was never in a band, I always was in a conceptual art band … I just want to make stuff and let it be the way it’s going to be,” she says.
It helps that, at age 45, she is beginning to be appreciated by younger bands, like Savages and Bats For Lashes, that are stepping up and acknowledging the role her music played in their own. The difference between now and those early days of DIY punk is fame: “You can become famous overnight … with one video live performance, all of the sudden, you are a huge star. I think that might be incredibly difficult if you are a young person,” she says.
Launching a band in her mid-40s also means that the rules have changed for self-promotion. Gone are the days of zines and fliers; their replacement: Twitter and Instagram updates.
“There’s a big part of me, when walking around in New York, I wish Social Media would evaporate. It can be used for positive things, but it can be used for middle-of-the-road mediocre crap. As a person in a band, why do I have to post a picture of my dog on Instagram?” she asks, laughing. “I really miss the mail.”