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Thursday 23 November 2017

Film review: The Punk Singer

At the IFI

Kathleen Hanna
Kathleen Hanna

Aine O’Connor

THE title somewhat undersells the subject, even if being a singer is Kathleen Hanna's abiding passion. Sini Anderson's award-winning documentary, however, chronicles the career and importance of one of the late 20th Century's most interesting cultural counterpoints. Kurt Cobain is the enduring underground-gone-overground icon of the early Nineties but it was his friend and grungy contemporary Kathleen Hanna who first suggested he smelled like teen spirit.

For those of us elderly enough to remember Hanna (inset) and her bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, it's fascinating to see the footage of her early fire. Intelligent, articulate, unapologetically female but not on anyone's terms but her own, Hanna was an amazing leader at a young age. As she says now, there was an enduring sense that when a man speaks, it is the truth. When a woman speaks it is up for question, is she exaggerating or manipulating? Hanna and her contemporaries, including Cobain, were part of the third wave of feminism.

In 2005, at the most commercial period of her success, she retired. She had said it was because she no longer had anything to say, but it was, in fact, due to illness and here she explains her journey back to health. Much of the current footage is shot in the home she shares with Adam 'Beastie Boys' Horovitz and Hanna talks about how difficult it can be for someone who has cast themselves in the role of helper to accept help. The documentary is shot in the run-up to the release last year of her new musical adventure, The Julie Ruin, and features input from her bandmates and friends.

Hanna always spoke and sang honestly about her experiences, including abuse and abortion. In the week of Pamela Anderson's revelations about abuse she suffered, and in the context of all the modern female icons who shy away from the f-word, Feminism, this blast from the past is strangely timely. Time for a fourth wave perchance. Interesting for Hanna admirers, The Punk Singer would serve well in a classroom.

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