The London Film Festival is sounding good as well as looking good this year, with a strand of 10 music documentaries that can take cinemagoers on a journey from Italian opera to Egyptian electro. The must-see must be The Punk Singer, a biopic from first-time director Sini Anderson following Bikini Kill bandleader and chief Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna. As movie star heroines go, this feminist firebrand deserves her own franchise.
“I’m your worst nightmare come to life,” she is seen screaming on stage in the very first scene. On her journey from spoken word performances to punk with Bikini Kill, electronic rock with Le Tigre, marriage to Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and a surprise comeback this year with The Julie Ruin, it’s only serious illness that can sap the 44-year-old’s indomitable spirit.
The Riot grrrl movement started gaining mainstream traction around the same time as grunge in the early Nineties. In fact, it was Hanna who gave her friend Kurt Cobain the title of his most famous song when she spraypainted “KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” on his wall. In 1995, Courtney Love was prosecuted for assaulting her at the side of the stage during a Sonic Youth concert.
They preached girl power before the Spice Girls spoiled it, but unlike their plaid shirt-wearing grunge contemporaries, Riot Grrrl bands such as Washington state-based Bikini Kill and their British counterparts Huggy Bear rejected press attention and largely remained underground. It led to a perception that a vital new scene, in which female fans were brought to the front rows and furious punk songs addressed domestic violence and the objectification of women, had fizzled fast. “How many Riot Grrrls does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because they’re never going to change anything,” went a joke of the time.
Yet while Hanna’s bands have never become household names, you only need to look at today’s music scene to see their influence and also, how much figureheads like her are still needed. There’s the media, of course, only putting female singers on magazine covers when they take their clothes off, and sexually supercharged stars such as Rihanna and Miley Cyrus gladly disrobing to thrill.
Yet there is also Lady Gaga, frequently as flesh-flashing as the rest of them admittedly, but also often presenting an uglier image to the world that is clearly not intended to please men. This week Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches became the latest woman to speak out against online misogyny in an article she wrote for The Guardian. “Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat? I hope not,” she said.
There are Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, currently imprisoned for protesting against Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral. Meanwhile, all-female London rock band Savages may have played down feminist interpretations of their work, but their uncompromising guitar assaults can be said to echo Bikini Kill’s and have just earned them a Mercury nomination.
Hanna says of Bikini Kill: “We knew we were never gonna make money, and it was really important that we make our music. We were on a mission.” Songs such as Daddy’s Li’l Girl covered disturbing subjects rarely heard in rock. In the film she speaks candidly about her “sexually inappropriate” father, her early job in a strip club and the sexual assault of her best friend in the house they shared.
But on stage, she is far from a victim, singing with a throat-shredding roar and banishing any male audience members who subscribe too aggressively to the mosh-pit mentality. Of the general themes of her songs she says: “I was singing to an allusive asshole male that was fucking the world over.” Her husband Horovitz describes her stage presence: “She was like a car accident: you can’t look away. But, you know, a good car accident.”
After Bikini Kill drifted apart in 1998, Hanna came back with the more tuneful and sonically wide-ranging Le Tigre, before splitting that trio in 2005. Now she reveals that she left because she was suffering from late stage Lyme disease, a condition that seriously affects the nervous system and in her case went undiagnosed for six years.
Seeing her suffer in scenes filmed by Horovitz, then finally in recovery and on stage with her new band in 2010, allows for a traditional cinema happy ending. Looking at today’s music scene, it’s clear that her work is far from over. This raw film should ideally tempt teens away fom the One Direction movie and help her to inspire the next generation of punk rock feminists.
Ritzy, Screen 2, Oct 17, 6:30pm
Hackney Picturehouse, Screen 1, Oct 19, 8:45 PM
VUE, Screen 5, Oct 20, 8:45 PM
FIVE MORE MUSIC FILMS AT LFF
HOW WE USED TO LIVE
Curzon Renoir, Screen 1, Oct 12, 6:30pm
BFI Southbank, NFT3, Oct 14, 6:30pm
A fourth film collaboration between director Paul Kelly and the pop band Saint Etienne, who provide the soundtrack to BFI National Archive footage of London from the Fifties to the Eighties. Remember what life was like when you couldn’t see the Shard?
TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM
VUE, Screen 7, Oct 11, 9:00pm
Rich Mix, Screen 1, Oct 12, 3:30pm
Odeon West End, Screen 1, Oct 13, 12:30pm
Director Morgan Neville turns his lens on the unsung singers of the touring circuit, veteran backing vocalists Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill, who all ought to be stars in their own right.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS
Hackney Picturehouse, Screen 1, Oct 12, 9:00pm
Screen on the Green, Oct 15, 6:30pm
Ritzy, Screen 2, Oct 19, 3:30pm
Gloomy indie rock giants The National bring some unexpected humour to the tour documentary genre, by allowing singer Matt Berninger’s metalhead brother Tom to film and dominate proceedings.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Rich Mix, Screen 1, Oct 12, 9:00pm
The story of Portuguese quartet Buraka Som Sistema’s globe-trotting year, taking their afro beats and techno everywhere from Caracas to India. The band also play live on Oct 10 at Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk).
Ritzy, Screen 2, Oct 12, 9:00pm
ICA, Screen 1, Oct 17, 2013 8:45pm
Hackney Picturehouse, Screen 1, Oct 18, 6:15pm
In scenes of a very different Egypt to the one we see on the news, sharp-dressed young people demonstrate their new way of singing of revolution: Electro Shaabi, an energetic, edgy dance sound that deserves to cross borders.
London Film Festival, Oct 9-20 (020 7928 3232, bfi.org.uk/lff)