There is a natural disadvantage here; The Punk Singer is about things, and a career, that have already happened. The unfair comparison is to, say, Don’t Look Back, or, worse, DiG! — two music documentaries that are, essentially and excitingly, about things that are unfolding in front of the camera. They serve as primary source documents. They are not histories. The Punk Singer is filled with other primary sources: VHS tapes filled with live performances and video diaries. The Punk Singer is an essay; those are the citations.
But its intentions had nothing to do with pure documentation, either, and that should be clear from its concept. This is an advertisement. We aren’t here to examine or criticize. I’m not sure that we’re even here to learn. We’re here to be inspired by someone who is inspiring. There’s not a negative word about Kathleen Hanna (this documentary’s subject, and the singer from Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin) to be found in The Punk Singer, maybe understandably — and maybe uselessly — so. The point here is idolatry, not information.
To be clear, this is not a review of Kathleen Hanna, or any of the bands that she was involved in. She is history, which is not to say that she is “over,” or irrelevant, but just that what she has done has mattered to such an enormous number of people in such an incalculably large way that what you or I think about it is immaterial. Punk rock changed the world, and she changed punk rock. She is a force, full of passion, contagious and uncontrollable.
The most exciting — or maybe just worthwhile — part of The Punk Singer is its last 20 minutes, when it shifts suddenly to the present tense, blacking out a few years to bring us to Hanna’s life after she’d been diagnosed with Lyme disease, watching her squirm uncomfortably and narrate her pain as she takes antibiotics, and then working to create not simply in spite of her disease, but because of it, pushing against things, always — life, or the feeling of losing it — to say something, constantly saying something, everything, whatever comes to her mind. The camera is there to watch an incredible person do the things that make her incredible. It becomes a primary source, and I wonder if watching her work through her illness could have been as powerful without the hour build-up of talking about every step of her career, then only to skip like a heavy stone over her life now, painful as it may be.
The point, though, remains: the movie didn’t make me care. I don’t care what a lot of other people think about Kathleen Hanna; I really only care what I think about her. I like some of her music, and I think she’s strong, motivated, and talented. She was the right person, existing in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. The Punk Singer explains who she is well enough, leaving little room for your own judgments and filling it brim-high with its own. But I think Tammy Rae Carland says something important in the movie: that if it wasn’t Kathleen Hanna, it would’ve been someone else, that this had to happen. It just happened to be her, because it was going to be somebody. This doesn’t diminish anything, of course. But it does suggest that the story is larger than one person, and a barrage of compliments and praise aren’t going to convince me otherwise.