“What is the story of my life? I have no fucking idea,” says Kathleen Hanna near the end of “The Punk Singer,” a biography of the musician that tellingly leaves her name out of the title. That is because Sini Anderson’s film is less about who Hanna is than what the feminist firebrand is about, giving a career overview as brief, punchy and fierce as one of her early Bikini Kill cuts yet leaves room for a discussion of the Seneca Falls Convention and Hanna’s role as the leader of the third wave of feminism, reflected on by both fellow musicians such as Kim Gordon and Joan Jett as well as Feminist Press executive director Jennifer Baumgardner and Rookie Mag founder Tavi Gevinson, who recounts how Hanna was once punched in the face by a belligerent Courtney Love at Lollapalooza based solely on what she read online since she was barely a year old when it happened.
Although seemingly inconsequential on the surface, Gevinson’s brief appearance speaks to the unusual place Hanna currently resides in pop consciousness as someone whose remarkable career has so often been reduced to its most superficial elements as the singer/songwriter became an iconic artist worthy of legendary status for the same reasons that ultimately kept her out of the mainstream. As “The Punk Singer” reminds time and again, Hanna had her thumbprints all over the culture even when she wasn’t onstage herself, whether it was through her connection to the Pacific Northwest during the early ‘90s where a graffiti scrawl in Olympia with her pal Kurt Cobain led to the title of Nirvana’s biggest hit or her eventual marriage to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, whose impassioned address of sexual abuse at Woodstock ’99 at the MTV Music Awards was co-written by Hanna.
Yet for an uncompromising and incendiary performer who commands your full attention, “The Punk Singer” gives Hanna the spotlight she deserves. Scored by a relentless stream of music from her solo career and her bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin with nary a pause during its 82 minutes and interspersed with interviews featuring the artist where she is rarely seen in the same outfit twice, every frame of the film carries her essence. But Anderson’s ability to place Hanna in a greater context is the film’s biggest strength, showing how Hanna’s search for a creative outlet led to an ideal platform and community in music, igniting an underground movement on the issue of feminism when it was thought to have already been settled.
Anderson obviously compiled a vast array of archival footage and contemporary interviews and utilizes all of it to create short bursts of energy to correlate with the sharp, snappy riffs of the soundtrack. The energy of it is impressive enough, but Anderson’s considerate curation of clips with the help of editors Jessica Hernandez and Bo Mehrad reveals a true fan’s passion coupled with a documentarian’s thorough investigation, never giving preference to an interview based on age so long as it speaks to the moment and placing interviewees in comfortable yet compelling environments such as the back of a van lit by Christmas lights or on a back porch with lawn chairs.
Still, the loose vibe encourages introspection rather than trivializes its subject, who appears to welcome a larger discussion about her work rather than her life. Some biographical details may perhaps be too casually presented — Bikini Kill’s breakup seems barely like a footnote and Hanna’s complicated relationship with her father is addressed in contradictory ways throughout the film. But after all but disappearing from the public eye in 2005 after the dissipation of Le Tigre, a mystery that’s promoted at the film’s start to give the film its narrative spine, Hanna’s personal story can’t help but take over. As ever, Hanna is eloquent about the health concerns that led her off the stage and incisive when it comes to how it fits into the struggle she’s faced at every turn in her life, something that’s been so well-chronicled beforehand by Anderson and company that one can’t help but believe that she will once again rise above it. Like nearly everything else she’s touched, she carries “The Punk Singer” to unthinkable heights.