The Punk Singer (4 stars)

The Punk Singer

Photo: Sophie Howarth

Inspiring look at the Bikini Kill riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna

Whatever happened to Kathleen Hanna? That's the basic thrust of Sini Anderson's accomplished debut feature-length documentary chronicling the life of the explosively inspiring former singer with punk rock bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and leader of the mid-90s underground feminist movement riot grrrl.

After fronting two game-changing groups, along the way dashing off lo-fi classic bedroom solo album The Julie Ruin and even accidentally inspiring pal Kurt Cobain to write 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', the Olympia, Washington-raised singer has since 2005 largely exited the public eye. It's only since this documentary premiered in March 2013 that the explanation has become public: Hanna has late stage Lyme disease, a nasty bacterial infection which has sapped this fireball's energy, and for which she was never properly diagnosed until after five years.

By Hanna's request, it's mainly female voices who help tell her story, be it bandmates Kathi Wilcox and Johanna Fateman, or feminist punk rock godmothers Joan Jett and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. One of the few men to feature prominently is the one Hanna married: Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz. It'll come as a surprise, possibly even a disappointment to some, to discover this once-scuzzy feminist icon today living in cosy domestic bliss in a plush lakeside house with a husband and a dog. But quite apart from being clearly very supportive in Hanna's medical fight, Horovitz has happily helped bring peace to a partner who – between an abusive father and crackhead ex-boyfriend – could hardly be blamed for taking a sometimes dim view of the opposite sex.

It's a shame the film ends before the completion of Hanna's new album and recent return to touring, denying it a Lazarus-like conclusion. But The Punk Singer still leaves you wishing there were more musicians of any sex who embrace rock's potency for smashing cultural boundaries with such power and personality as this one did in her fearless prime.

Reviewed at Glasgow Film Festival 2014.

The Punk Singer Official Trailer 1 (2013) - Documentary HD

The Punk Singer

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • USA
  • 1h 20min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Sini Anderson
  • Cast: Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Adam Horowitz
  • UK release: 23 May 2014

Documentary on former Bikini Kill singer and punktivist extraordinaire Kathleen Hanna, chronicling her struggle against a late diagnosis of Lyme disease. Fellow musicians such as Joan Jett and Kim Gordon help tell Hanna's story, and although it misses her recent return to touring, it's an inspiring account of a…