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‘The Punk Singer’: The ferocious music, sedate life of Kathleen Hanna

‘THE PUNK SINGER’ ★★★

IFC Films presents a documentary directed by Sini Anderson. Running time: 80 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

There’s an extraordinary shot in “The Punk Singer,” a portrait of Kathleen Hanna, showing the tiny lead singer of Bikini Kill in an early-’90s performance, screaming her confrontational lyrics directly into the faces of a group of mohawk-wearing young punks roughly twice her size. Who stonily nod their heads in approval.

It’s a moment that dramatically underscores the courage and the ferocity, at least in performance, of the riot grrrl icon, who put feminist revolution ahead of pop stardom and generated equivalent amounts of adulation and hostility — sometimes extreme hostility. Hanna became famous (though certainly not rich) during her eight years with Bikini Kill, combining taunting sexuality with a zero-tolerance approach to male mosh-pit bullying at her shows and songs that lashed out at rape, sexual abuse and masculine oppression in general. And she seemed poised on the verge of greater success with her follow-up group, the “feminist party band” Le Tigre, when she suddenly withdrew from performing in 2005.

“The Punk Singer” reveals that the reason for Hanna’s precipitous vanishing act wasn’t artistic burnout, as she previously claimed, but a mysterious, debilitating illness diagnosed years later as late-stage Lyme disease. Fans will no doubt find the details of her medical travails and the glimpses of her surprisingly sedate middle-aged home life equally revelatory. And debut director Sini Anderson has done a nice job of assembling an overview of Hanna’s life based on interviews with the singer, her friends and her admirers such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Joan Jett — though the film could have benefited from more objective viewpoints.

Despite the insularity, “Punk Singer” has a terrific story to tell, not least about the fascinating contradictions in Hanna’s character. She worked as a stripper for a while during the Bikini Kill years, for instance, and her husband is Adam Horovitz of the not-exactly-feminist-approved Beastie Boys. It’s the music, though, including a wealth of galvanic performance footage from the Bikinis, particularly, that really makes this worth seeing.

It’s killer stuff indeed.



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