Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre, rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the riot grrrl movement. She became one of the most famously outspoken feminist icons, a cultural lightning rod. Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews with Hanna, “The Punk Singer” takes viewers on a fascinating tour of contemporary music and offers a never-before-seen view into the life of this fearless leader.
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The Punk Singer
The Punk Singer
Kathleen and I were talking about making the Le Tigre documentary, WHO TOOK THE BOMP? I said I thought it was a great idea, but that I felt like there was a bigger story that needed telling—Kathleen’s story. There have been many accounts of the bands to which she’s lent her iconic wail, the movement she helped start, and the effects that movement has had on feminism today, but nothing solely about and supported by Kathleen herself. “Kathleen, when are you going to tell your story?” I asked. Soon after that meeting, she decided that now was the right time.With more than 20 years of work behind her, Kathleen’s story is more than a single film can hope to capture, and more than I alone can hope to convey in 90 minutes or less. But Kathleen was ready, and I was ready to make my first feature-length film. I assembled a team of experienced producers, DPs, and an editor. After two years working on the film, we ran out of funds for post-production and hit a wall. For help, I turned to veteran filmmaker Tamra Davis. Tamra has always been somebody that I looked up to as a filmmaker. I showed her the film and, seeing great potential in it, she came on board as a producer and took a significant role in shaping the film you see today. Kathleen is a cultural icon, the biggest influence on my generation of feminist artists. The responsibility involved in telling her story is not lost on me, and I’m grateful for Tamra’s help. From the beginning, and at heart, THE PUNK SINGER has been a collaborative effort. When people first heard I was making a film about Kathleen, they were eager to go on camera and express what she’s meant to them. More and more people started coming forward, and I realized how female her story is; with few exceptions, all of Kathleen’s collaborators have been women, which is perhaps why her life and works resonate so much with women. Kathleen might not be “the boss of the riot grrrls,” as some media would have her pegged, but certainly she’s been one of feminism’s most vocal champions this side of the ‘70s. One of the most memorable days of production was the Kathleen Hanna Tribute Show, in December 2010 at the Knitting Factory. Twenty bands turned out to cover songs from Kathleen’s extensive catalog. We didn’t want to miss anything, so our tiny crew expanded to nearly 40 people on a five-camera shoot, and we set up a makeshift interview set in our production van where we interviewed all the bands. Some of the artists we interviewed were teenagers, like Care Bears on Fire, She Murders, and Tavi Gevinson. Born well after riot grrrl, I asked them how they even knew who Kathleen Hanna was. They all said that someone had put a Bikini Kill song or two on mix tapes they’d been given in middle school, and that once they heard it, they couldn’t get enough. Kathleen was overwhelmed by the turnout at that show. Friends and collaborators past and fierce musicians future—the next generation of women who rock—were covering songs from her entire catalog. It came at a really pivotal moment in her life, when even the hardiest leader could use a little encouragement. After all, it’s not solely for her audience that Kathleen writes these galvanizing anthems. Yes, she’s gifted at communicating what’s on her mind in a way that inspires and compels others to follow suit. But as I hope you’ll see in the film, that doesn’t mean this leader has it all figured out, that she’s said everything she has to say. And lucky for us, she’s not done trying.