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Featured DVD Review: The Punk Singer

March 24th, 2014

The Punk Singer - Buy from Amazon

The Punk Singer was made in 2010 and focuses on Kathleen Hanna, who is not only a punk singer, but a lot more and helped influence a movement. At least she did till she left the spotlight in 2005. Do we get enough insights into her work? And will the documentary appeal to a wider audience?

The Movie

We learn a little bit about Kathleen Hanna's home life, but the film starts in earnest with Kathleen Hanna in college where she was an art major. She also performed as a spoken word artist until she formed a band, Bikini Kill, with Tobi Vail on drums and Kathi Wilcox on bass and latter Billy Karren on guitar. (There's a fun story about how Tobi asked Kathi if she could play an instrument and when Kathi said no, she asked her to start a band together. That's punk.) The first half of the movie not only focuses on Kathleen Hanna's music career, but also a lot on her political leanings and how she helped shape Third Wave Feminism with the Riot Grrrl movement. She helped spread the message during concerts and through things called Zines. I first heard about Zines from a Canadian show called Our Hero. They basically fill the same niche as blogs do today. They needed someway to get their message out, because the media sure wasn't going to do an adequate job at the time. They still don't do an adequate job now. After Bikini Kill disbanded, she went on to do a solo project called Julie Ruin and later still formed a second band, Le Tigre, with Johanna Fateman and JD Samson.

The film also looks at Kathleen Hanna's personal life, including her relationship with Adam Horovitz. The last parts of the movie discuss how she dropped out of the music scene. At the time, she said she ran out of songs to write, but she was also dealing with health problems. The scary part was, she didn't know what the cause was. In fact, it wasn't until during the filming of this movie that she learned why she was sick.

The Punk Singer is an excellent movie with a great mix of the musical side of Kathleen Hanna's life, as well as the political and the personal. It is firmly in the area of a Hagiography, as it is more of a love letter to Kathleen Hanna than it is a balanced look at her career. Not every documentary needs to tell both sides, so I don't have an issue with that. On the other hand, if you don't know much about Kathleen Hanna, you might be left wanting to be told more about the movement she was apart of. Also, if you don't like punk music, there's a lot of it in this film. Overall, I think established fans of hers will get enough of what they want to be happy, while newcomers will leave with a strong appreciation for her passion.

The Extras

Extras include four deleted scenes. There is a two-minute montage of images from Kathleen Hanna's life presented while she plays the keyboard. Viva Knievel is a minute-long look at Kathleen Hanna's pre-Bikini Kill band and includes a look at a music video. Hey Lady is a two-minute... I'm not entirely sure what it is. Finally there's Summersault, which is two minutes of behind-the-scenes look at the music festival.

The Verdict

The Punk Singer is certainly aimed at Kathleen Hanna fans more than it is aimed at neophytes, but I think fans of the genre in general, either of documentaries or of punk music, will also enjoy it. There are not a lot of extras on the DVD, but it is still worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna