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SXSW 2013: Kathleen Hanna reemerges in ‘The Punk Singer’

AUSTIN, Texas -- In her bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna has brought a fiercely feminist perspective to her lyrics and music, inspiring multiple generations of young women. The new documentary “The Punk Singer,” which is having its world premiere at the South by Southwestf film festival, is a concise look at Hanna as a larger-than-life force and her more up-close, human travails.

The film covers such high-profile moments in Hanna’s career as her connections to the ‘90s Northwest music scene -- she coined the phrase “smells like teen spirit” used in Nirvana’s epochal song and was once  punched in the face by Courtney Love. It also provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the health issues that have more recently kept her from public life.

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Hanna donated her archives to New York University, though that does not mean she is ready to become solely a figure of history just yet.

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“I really feel this frees me from any kind of burden,” said Hanna, a mixture of buoyant enthusiasm and radiant calm in an interview Monday afternoon alongside director Sini Anderson and producer Tamra Davis. “Being sick also made me feel like, I’m No. 1. I can’t constantly be trying to write the unwritten song, the song that the 15-year-old girl needs. I need to write the song that I need. I feel like having the movie frees me to make whatever I want.”

It has not been widely known that over the last few years Hanna, now 43, has battled the effects of late-stage Lyme disease, which has kept her from performing. And though she and her husband, Beastie Boys member Adam Horovitz, have long kept a low profile regarding their relationship, he is a strong presence in the film as the only man interviewed on camera. Some of the most harrowing footage involving Hanna’s health was shot by Horovitz himself.

Anderson’s feature documentary debut, “The Punk Singer” covers a lot of ground, mixing Hanna’s personal story with the recent history of feminism as well as the ‘90s “riot grrrl” movement, of which she was a founding and pivotal member. Among those interviewed on camera are her former bandmates from Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, as well as musicians Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and music critic Ann Powers.

Included in the film is footage shot by Davis from when both Horovitz and Hanna were on tour with their bands in Australia in the ‘90s -- a time Hanna can now see as when the unlikely couple were falling in love. Anderson did not take it for granted Horovitz would participate in the film and left it up to the couple whether he would agree to an interview.

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“It wasn’t a given in the beginning,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of people would expect that because of this story of Kathleen -- ‘President Feminist’ -- that Adam is not going to be in there. First of all, I know what a cool, amazing and supportive relationship they have. There was no assumption whether he would be in or out, but over the course of filming it became really apparent that this is not only Kathleen’s husband but it’s also her best friend. “

For Hanna, the documentary had to include things she hadn’t discussed before, including her upbringing, health and relationship, otherwise there was no point in doing it.

“Early on when we started, we talked about what we thought a good movie might be,” Hanna said. “And I said I was sick of doing interviews where I say the same [thing] over and over again and where ‘here’s the three things I’m going to say during this interview.’ I really just wanted to sit down and be honest.”

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Hanna laid down an early ground rule that she wanted her story told by women and that she specifically did not want figures such as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore or Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson to appear.

“I love those people but I did not want them in the movie because they’re always used as the experts in terms of ‘90s music and punk rock,” Hanna said. “And I want women to be the experts. I don’t want these male experts to come in to make it legitimate.”

Hanna jokingly referred to Anderson as “the Ken Burns of Riot Grrrl” for the wealth of material she brought together for the film. Davis, a producer-director who is married to Michael Diamond of Beastie Boys and who has helmed films including “Billy Madison,” stepped in late in the process to help shape the film. 

“It really helped,” Davis said of her personal connection to Hanna. “I knew what her music meant, and I also knew there were a lot of sensitive subjects, whatever it was, about her sickness or her relationship with Adam, the Kurt Cobain story, the Courtney Love story, her relationship with her bands. I knew the minefields.”

Hanna is also about to start another chapter in her career with new band The Julie Ruin, hoping to have a new record out in the summer on the band’s own label of the same name. She also hopes she’ll be well enough for some live shows or a small tour.

Though Hanna may not currently feel the impulse to write anthems along the lines of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” exploring smaller-scale issues in her new songs instead, she doesn’t think her move to more personal topics means she has lost her edge.

“Wait till you here the songs I wrote about cookies,” she said.

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Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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