One should not, the old saw says, judge a book by its cover. Is the principle the same if you judge a movement by its spelling, or a band by its look? I admit, with slight self-consciousness, that when I said goodbye to Buffalo, N.Y., and hauled my blue-collar life to D.C. in the mid-1990s, I was still discovering Bruce Springsteen (!) and enthusiastically warbling along to my first piano man, Billy Joel (!!). Musical try-too-hards with retro rags and hipster haircuts made me roll my eyes. It all seemed like a put-on to be cooler than thou. Yet I never listened to a second of their songs.
The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s debut documentary about Bikini Kill singer and riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna, therefore, sounded like an education at best and an 80-minute bore at worst. Never did a third option cross my mind: It’s fucking awesome, and energizing, and inspiring. Is there a cutoff age for starting a band?
Anderson starts the film with a home video of Hanna in 1991 Olympia, Wash., performing a spoken-word piece at a party. Her repetitions and rhythms will get in your head, but the work is more notable for other details, such as the lines, “There’s not a guy big enough to handle this mouth” and “I’m your worst nightmare come to life because I’m going to tell everyone! I’m going to tell everyone!” (Quite prescient, that.) Hanna wanted to become a writer. But Kathy Acker, a counterculture writer Hanna admired, told her that no one listens to spoken word, and instead she should be in a band.
So along with Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail, and Billy Karren—with Hanna at the front—Bikini Kill was born and came out screaming. The band played loud, fast, and primitively; the members weren’t exactly masters of their instruments. And Hanna demanded its performances be grrrl-friendly, making room in the mosh pit for fans who were likely to suffer broken bones and elbows to the face at other guy-heavy punk shows.
The Punk Singer’s footage of live performances are electric, but Hanna’s messages—and the messages of the movement—are the doc’s crux. She spoke out against sexual assault, discrimination against the voiceless, society’s dismissal of women’s perspectives, and tsk-tsking of female aggressiveness. Feminism is a concept that goes back decades—centuries, even—but as Hanna says, there’s still a need to fight.
The documentary covers Hanna’s follow-up bands (Le Tigre, The Julie Ruin), but also dedicates the film’s last chapter to Hanna’s mysteriously failing health, which eventually kept her from performing. (Although, pride still intact, she told people it was her decision to quit.) Her bizarre array of ailments were initially misdiagnosed; in 2010, Hanna finally found out that she’d been living with Lyme disease for five years.
Hanna may be a little worse for wear now, but proper treatment has helped her return to performing. And, of course, to speaking out. “‘I would never want to tell everyone [my] whole entire story because it sounded crazy,” she says, alluding to issues with her father that included “sexual inappropriateness,” in her words, and her seemingly hypocritical stint as a stripper. “It sounded like too big a can of worms, like, who would believe me? And then I was like, other women would believe.”
Saving Mr. Banks Directed by John Lee Hancock
Really, there are no major spoilers to sidestep in a discussion of Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock’s telling of the 20-plus-year clash between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers to bring Travers’ novel, Mary Poppins, to the screen. Everyone now knows that when you try to combine a spoonful of sugar (Disney) with bitter medicine (Travers), a lethal brew is what results.
OK, OK, that’s not quite true. Mary Poppins, the movie, debuted in 1964 and is considered one of the many classics of the Disney canon. Hancock’s film, which leans a bit more toward the director’s treacly The Blind Side than his more subtly uplifting The Rookie, pits Tom Hanks against Emma Thompson as Mr. Disney and Mrs. Travers—how the author prefers they address each other—respectively. With a rueful instrumental of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” the story begins in 1906 Australia, where a future author, Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), is daydreaming in a field. The little girl’s stare morphs into Thompson’s Travers waking from a reverie in London, staring for several seconds directly into the camera—an odd and somewhat menacing artistic choice.
Travers isn’t a psychopath, though, merely a prickly recluse who refuses to hand over her much-loved Mary to an American “dollar-printing machine” without having final say on the filmmakers’ creation. At her agent’s urging, she agrees to meet with Disney in Los Angeles in 1961. No music, she insists; no animation. Dropping his vision of a musical is one stipulation Disney will not grant, and he hands the author to his songwriting team (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, the latter unable to shed his Office smarminess and appear believable as an employee of the Magic Kingdom). But Travers nixes almost every idea, going so far as to demand there be no red in the film.
Though Thompson suffuses Travers with negativity and sourness through and through (“I hope we crash,” she says when she flies to L.A.), her attitude turns from amusing to tiresome rather quickly. It’s tough to imagine anyone being as upbeat as Hanks’ Disney through this process, and it’s a great moment when the character drops his lilt when he brings her to Disneyland and invites her scowling self to ride the merry-go-round, saying, “Get on the horse, Pam.”
Besides the pair’s negotiations, however, the film also offers a look at Travers’ childhood, which included a cheery but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, out of character), and a mother (Ruth Wilson) who nearly committed suicide. She poured her upbringing into Mary Poppins, hence the writer’s reluctance to let her characters go. There truly are no spoilers; nearly all viewers will know that the film gets made. But to see Travers’ reaction at the premiere is very much a surprise—one that’s deeply touching, sympathy-inducing, and offers the genuine sweetness you might have imagined it impossible for such a film to capture.