The Punk Singer: Kathleen Hanna Returns

The Punk Singer

Runs Fri., Dec. 6–Thurs., Dec. 12 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 80 minutes.

Kathleen Hanna’s return to music receives considerably more fanfare with this new documentary than did her inexplicable retirement. After bursting onto the early-’90s scene with the Evergreen College–spawned riot-grrrl band Bikini Kill, then later shifting to a mellower key with Le Tigre, Hanna seemingly dropped out of music in 2005. Why, apart from her marriage to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, did she stop performing?

More a fan than a director, Sini Anderson mostly gets to the bottom of such questions in The Punk Singer (also available on iTunes and VOD). Back in the day, Hanna was wary of the male-dominated rock press, and she’s now in full control of Anderson’s access. Generously sourced with testimonials from the likes of Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, and Kim Gordon, the doc is less a career assessment than a companion reel to Hanna’s relaunch as a performer. At 45, she probably doesn’t want to go back to her angry punk roots—who can maintain such energy and outrage 24/7? But if Gordon, Madonna, or even Marianne Faithfull could continue their careers past 40, why shouldn’t she? (With her new group The Julie Ruin, Hanna played Neumos in September.) So if The Punk Singer partly feels like an infomercial, full of praise for Hanna, it also has a medical, service-y aspect on the dangers of Lyme disease, which led to her health collapse.

“I thought I was having a stroke,” says Hanna of a health incident at a Planned Parenthood rally in 2008, before her diagnosis. Her ongoing treatment looks to be unpleasant, with a regimen of pills and shots that hasn’t yet returned her to full strength. In a down moment, she asks her husband, “Do I look horrible?” “No,” Horovitz quickly shoots back. You’d like to see more of these domestic scenes, as when Horovitz recalls meeting Hanna on tour in the ’90s: “Kathleen was like a force—a car accident, but a good car accident.”

After a difficult upbringing (Hanna hints at sexual abuse), there’s no reason a middle-aged punk rocker shouldn’t now enjoy a comfortable boho/bourgeois life in Manhattan. She’s earned it. And if nothing else, her story is a reminder to check yourself for tick bites in the Hamptons.

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