The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s intimate, invigorating portrait of Riot grrrl founder and former Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, world premiered at SXSW this week and it’s the film I can’t stop thinking about. In it, Hanna reveals for the first time that she dropped out of the music scene after being stricken low by Lyme Disease, a diagnosis that took six long, hard years for doctors to make. At its terrifying peak her illness robbed Hanna of that raw belt of a singing voice and she worried she’d soon be bound to a wheelchair. Watch a clip below:
“I was embarrassed,” she tells EW of her decision to keep her disease a secret. “I wanted to be the person who could handle anything and was unstoppable and didn’t want to disrupt that myth I even had about myself.” But now, finally unburdened, she’s come to a place where she is funny and forthright about her health. When she caught this reporter looking with confusion at the two glasses of water in front of us on the table, she waved her hand to grab either. “One of those is mine, but don’t worry. I’m not sick. Lyme Disease isn’t contagious.”
Hanna committed to the documentary at a particularly terrifying moment of feeling physically out of control. “I wanted to make sure my work existed in the world,” she said. So Anderson followed Hanna between July 4, 2010 and July 4, 2011, amassing hundreds of hours of footage. (“I just love that detail,” Anderson says of the production’s Independence Day brackets. “You don’t think of a feminist punk rock story as a very American story, but to me that is what an American artist’s story is.”) The movie also unearths magnificent archival footage of Hanna back in the ’80s and ’90s hurling herself like a dervish across the stage — “Girls to the front,” she demands at one show. “I’m serious. Boys, be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back!” — and navigating the painful breakup of Bikini Kill and the more joyful birth of Le Tigre. Her unapologetic brashness and unwillingness to be reduced by a media wary of a woman flexing such radical power is a wildly fun and righteous thing to relive.
The Punk Singer is no dry polemic and it’s not just for hardcore fans of the music. There’s good laughs, and, my, what a romance. The movie revisits the early days of Hanna’s relationship with Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, whom she married in 2006. The scenes of him at her side through her illness and the literal loss of her voice paint such a warm portrait of a working partnership. Punk Singer producer and good friend Tamra Davis, who’s married to Mike D., agrees. “I would read back in Bikini Kill press ‘They don’t like men, they don’t like men.’ And I really wanted to make sure that this film didn’t ever have that opinion because that’s not what that message was ever about. Kathleen and Adam have this incredible love story.”
Hanna’s eyes well when she talks about her husband’s devotion to her throughout these trying several years. “He’s so awesome I want to scream it from the mountains,” she says. “I mean, dude hooked me up with an IV for eight months every day.”
Today, Hanna has been in remission for four months. Her new band, the Julie Ruin, which includes Bikini Kill bass player Kathi Wilcox, is mastering a record that will be ready in three months. NYU is publishing a book of Riot grrrl archive material that will include some of Hanna’s early work. “Like a bunch of super embarrassing writing from when I was 19 and 20, like menstrual blood poetry,” she says with a groan. And the goal now is to land The Punk Singer a theatrical distribution deal.
“When I was so ill it was all about wrapping my life up in a bow so I could go and do what I needed to do health-wise,” says Hanna. “But now it’s really weird to be around and given a second chance. There’s moments when I feel panic but my friends talk me off the ledge. They’re like ‘Just be prepared for lots of love.’ That’s a good way to think of it, right?”