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Theatrical Review: The Punk Singer

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The Punk Singer

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There are two major types of documentary film sub genres: the "issue" film and the "biography" film. Some documentaries tell a story about a specific person or event and focus on important and interesting details surrounding said noun of choice. Some documentaries preach social change and are so far skewed either to the right or the left that it automatically takes the side of defensive. A lot of moviegoers avoid this genre for that reason entirely. Some feel uncomfortable when they are being challenged. Some feel bored when they are being told what they already know. It takes a keen eye to not only tell both types of sub genre in documentary format, but also not preach too loudly.

This film is one of those. Making a strong directorial debut, Sini Anderson chose to tell not only the story of punk rocker Kathleen Hanna, but also the origins and continued struggle of the culture she helped bring to life: that of female punk rock. Starting from humble beginnings handing out fanzines and playing local gigs to headlining main events and spreading the word of tolerance, self-expression, and altogether unprecedented extreme girl power, Hanna (both solo and with her various bands, ranging from Bikini Kill to Le Tigre to The Julie Ruin) exudes such a rare stage presence that is so uncommon, so mesmerizing, that even the most jaded music lover couldn't help but react. Love her or hate her, she would not be ignored.

But this isn't just her story. Though those aspects of the documentary that focus on her personal tale are harrowing, exciting, devastating, and hopeful, it is not the entire focus of the film. Further explorations of the "riot grrrl" movement of the 1990s and interviews with media personalities, journalists, historians, feminists, and musicians alike from both the past and present make for an interesting blend of politics, criticism, and secret subculture exploration. Part history lesson and part exploration into some serious social questions, this film delivers where most lesser documentaries like it have failed so many times in the past: It entertains, it informs, and it calls for action. The message is simple, as is Hanna's, and it is one that every music fan, man, woman, child, adult, or human being can relate to: Everyone deserves to be heard.

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