Tag Archives: film and music

The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 May 2014

Distributor Dogwoof

Director: Sini Anderson

USA 2013

81 mins

‘All four of us don’t agree on anything ever, it’s really hard for us to say anything about ourselves.’ So says Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, in archive footage featured in The Punk Singer, a documentary by Sini Anderson about the band’s front woman, Kathleen Hanna. In the spirit of their politics, band members Hanna, Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren did not toe the line. Angry about the condescending and sensationalist reporting of the band and the Riot Grrrl movement they spearheaded, they rarely gave interviews. It is therefore thrilling to hear them reflect on the period in Anderson’s affectionate, bordering on hagiographic, film.

As a young feminist performance poet, Hanna was advised by Kathy Acker to join a band instead. Bikini Kill were exciting, raw and radical, and in Hanna they had a front woman with a brilliant voice and flair for live performance. She kicked back against the aggressive male mosh pits of the punk scene by calling ‘girls to the front’, thus creating a safe space for women to enjoy themselves.

For details of screenings please visit the Dogwoof website.

Sadly, the world outside their concerts was still not safe: abortion rights were being challenged and incidents of sexual harassment (as demonstrated by the Anita Hill case) were not being taken seriously. Riot Grrrl, a movement that embraced art, feminism and music, was born out of this unease. Hanna and Bikini Kill were among those who wrote a manifesto (‘We are not man-haters…’), started a fanzine of the same name, and declared it to be an open movement to women everywhere.

As Hanna recalls in the film, the outside world did not often grasp what the movement was about, and press reports about it often focused on Hanna’s past (she worked as a stripper to support herself through college, and comments she made about her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ were twisted into a lie that he had raped her). Interviewed by Anderson over several months, Hanna still appears weary of explaining herself on these matters, more than 20 years later.

But the real thrust of the film, and the question posed by Anderson at the beginning, is why did Hanna stop performing? After Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, Hanna released a solo record under the name Julie Ruin, then in 1998 founded ‘feminist party band’ Le Tigre. They were successful, but in 2005 Hanna called it a day, telling everyone including her husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz (she acknowledges the irony of her falling for someone who helped write the song ‘Girls’), that it was because she had nothing else to say.

This was not true. In the course of Anderson’s candid interviews with Hanna, the singer reveals it was because she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a debilitating condition that one doctor describes as being like ‘if Superman meets Kryptonite’. It was undoubtedly a horrific period for Hanna and those around her and, perhaps because it remained undiagnosed for so long, one senses she still remains cowed by it today (in May she was forced to cancel a Julie Ruin tour because of the disease’s return, after a period of remission). A scene of her approaching a comeback gig hand-in-hand with her husband reveals a wide-eyed vulnerability that contrasts wildly with the early footage.

The film doesn’t tell of a triumphant or a tragic journey. It acknowledges Hanna’s huge achievements (not least in the superb soundtrack of back-to-back Hanna songs) but in the process of interviewing only committed admirers and close friends (Kim Gordon and Jennifer Baumgardner among them), and in providing no narration, balanced or otherwise, the film becomes a little over-referential. Perhaps Anderson did not feel it was the correct forum to challenge anything said by Hanna in her interviews, especially after Hanna points out how she feels people will always question a woman’s version of events. With its unprecedented access to Bikini Kill’s musical and artwork archive and pro-female approach (it is fanzine-like in style and very few men are interviewed, not even Karren), perhaps it isn’t. This is Kathleen Hanna: Herstory.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer:

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London

Tonite Lets All Make Love in London
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London

Format: YouTube

Director: Peter Whitehead

UK 1967

70 mins

Colours swirl on the screen, blurry footage of the capital’s signifiers swim into view, London buses and the like, as The Pink Floyd chug into ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ on the soundtrack, the one that sounds a bit like the theme to Steptoe and Son. We get the title, and then the subtitle, ‘a pop concerto,’ as a montage takes shape of magazine covers, straplines and hemlines, union jacks on everything: welcome to cool Britannia. Tonite is a definite case of the right filmmaker at the right time.

Photographer-director-editor Peter Whitehead was a well-connected hipster and his hour-long documentary, released in 1967, catches the British Pop wave at its mod zenith, just before things got a bit more… hairy. So we get interviews with Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and David Hockney, Edna O’Brien and Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave singing ‘Guantanamera’ in Cuban sympathy, the Ginsberg poem that gives the film its title, performances from the Animals and Floyd and Alan Aldridge painting on a naked dolly bird to keep the investors and the raincoat brigade happy, all tossed lightly together in labelled sections (‘The loss of the British empire’, ‘It’s all pop music’, etc.) on a bed of skilfully assembled observational footage. Whitehead has an eye for the arresting image and a talent for sly juxtapositions in the editing suite; in the section on ‘dolly girls’ we see a pair of nuns touring the fashion boutiques, and he plays the Stones’ fragile, chivalric ballad ‘Lady Jane’ over footage of alarmingly aggressive female stage invaders at a near riotous 1966 concert.

It’s interesting that here, at the height of it all, most of his interviewees are sceptical about London’s elevation to the kingdom of kool. Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham seems to be a portrait of louche disinterest behind yellow-tinted shades, hinting that his part in pop music will be over and he might move into film – he and Aldridge are pretty circumspect about what they do and its cultural worth. Christie opines that ‘a good time is much easier to have now’ but wonders whether that’s for a minority, a bubble she’s very much part of: ‘everything’s happened to me, I haven’t happened to anything’. It’s telling that both Hockney and Caine bring up the British licensing hours. Caine calls them a ‘condescending piece of class consciousness’ brought in for the First World War to keep the workers in their place. Both bemoan the fact that the average bloke has to call it a night at 11 o’clock and that the capital’s nightclubs are too pricey for the masses. Hockney witheringly describes one as a ‘rhythm and blues Aberdeen steakhouse’ and dolefully laments that you would be unlikely to find a plumber from Camberwell in any of them.

Money turns up over and over again, as freedom, as the reason people have the time to attend Vietnam protests. There is much here to confirm the suspicion that swinging London actually swung for very few, and that, as ever, it helped to be rich. Asked about ‘pop art seduction’ Caine says that ‘it helps to be a movie star, or a pop star, or at the very least among the first 200 people on the Aldermaston march,’ which is pretty damn cutting. It’s left to the yanks to be wholly enthusiastic in the last reel. Lee Marvin (!) calls the pop explosion ‘a healthy break away from the stoic, the stolid and the staid,’* Hugh Hefner just seems delighted that there’s somewhere to put on one of his Playboy clubs, where you can be surrounded by ‘recognisable people’.

On the whole it’s a great document, freely available on YouTube and well worth an hour of your time. It’s too smart to attempt to be a definitive document of the times, and is much more of a freewheeling impressionistic grab bag of moments, people, styles and music, a cousin to the Mondo movie. Still, it’s artfully constructed and there’s plenty here to chew on. ‘It’s all about the loss of the British empire,’ says Caine at the outset, as we see footage of a a phalanx of bowler-hatted old-school-tie types observing the trooping of the colour or some other such piece of pomp and ceremony, with the implication that the days of royalty and deference may be numbered. Forty-odd years later social mobility seems to be backsliding and the Eton boys are firmly in charge. Plus ça change, or ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss,’ as The Who would have it. Toodle pip.

Mark Stafford

* He later says, ‘there’s more room in a Mini car than there is in a Cadillac, I don’t know if that holds true for the miniskirts,’ which makes me want to seek out more Lee Marvin interviews. Here, he seems to be in costume for the shooting of The Dirty Dozen.