Many know her as Riot Grrrl, the face of a punk-rock feminist movement.
Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer of Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, a cutting-edge punk rocker with a strong message.
She fronted dance-punk trio Le Tigre in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and released a solo album titled “Julie Ruin” in 1998.
Then Hanna, who is married to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, walked away from performing and recording in 2005.
She's back, not only as a musician but in a new documentary about her tumultuous life. “The Punk Singer,” directed by Sini Anderson, is playing at Film Streams, combining intimate interviews with 20 years of archival footage.
When Anderson approached Hanna with the idea of a biopic, she said no.
Make that “Noooooooo!”
“I thought it was a really bad idea,” Hanna, 45, said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City. “Enough of me. I didn't want to reinforce this whole face of Riot Grrrl thing. I had guilt and shame about the attention when so many were a part of the movement. It's antithetical to my goals of creating a feminist community.”
But she rethought her answer.
“I wanted to make sure my work lives on. There were some really difficult times in my career when I didn't know if I could keep doing this. I didn't go through all that to let my feminist work go into the garbage can. I said, 'I should do this now because I don't know if I'll be able to do it later.' ”
With the movie, Hanna has revealed the reason the screaming suddenly stopped. She has been ill with Lyme disease. Undetected for years, the tick-borne infection has been tough for her to beat back into submission. But Hanna is nothing if not tenacious.
She doesn't have as much energy some days as others. Sometimes the pain in her legs is bad. The outlook is uncertain. She has two more oral antibiotic treatments ahead of her, which really wipe her out.
“But I'm able to tour. I had a four-hour rehearsal yesterday. I'm really enjoying my wellness days, which are pretty often.”
Hanna was at SXSW in Austin, Texas, in March when “The Punk Rocker” premiered, and audience reaction buoyed her.
She was particularly surprised by the response to the parts of the movie about Lyme disease.
“I thought people would be, like, 'I'm bored.' But it's like, 'My mother has it. My brother.' People thanked me for bringing it to light. This is a huge epidemic. I was really touched.”
Hanna, who refused to talk to reporters for years after misinformation about her past made it into print, had real trust issues with mass media. She said she grew up not knowing what healthy boundaries were. That led her to either trust indiscriminately or not at all.
She trusted Anderson, she said, because she was at a point where she had to trust. And though the film made her feel vulnerable, she now says it's one time that having no boundaries ended up being a good thing. Its messages about Lyme disease and feminism matter deeply to her.
“In the '90s, I was a reluctant leader (of the punk feminist movement), and my music suffered for it,” she said. “For a year, I didn't make my own music, supporting others. I always wonder what music I would have made that year.”
When she looks at the music business today, Hanna sees many more women pulling in big money in the mainstream.
“Lady Gaga gives incredible time and energy to gay rights causes, which is fantastic, even though I'm not a fan of the music. Taylor (Swift) sings directly to a young female audience. Underground, there are so many different kinds of female bands. And there are more women at shows. To see the audience is so much more diverse gender-wise is really exciting.”
She looks at the Riot Grrl movement now as an offshoot of feminism that made its way into the punk scene. She said the music led to more women's studies courses and spurred activism.
“I miss the 1970s, when there was Gloria Steinem,” she said. “Who are the big stars of feminism today? And I don't just want one. I want a couple of Steinems with different points of view.”
In some ways, she said, feminism is in the same place today it was in the 1990s, including the divide over abortion. And there are more women living in poverty than ever.
“That really disturbs me more than anything,” she said. “So many women's voices are completely squashed by the fact that they're just trying to survive.”
Hanna said she's staying as far away from “The Punk Singer” as she can — not because she doesn't like the movie, but because its focus makes her uncomfortable.
“I don't want to think about people watching my face,” she said. “I'm really happy something has historicized me to this point, because I can move on now and do what I want to do. I just want to be making work. I'm writing a new record now, touring, doing a bunch of different projects.”
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THE PUNK SINGER
Director: Sini Anderson
Stars: Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, Adam Horovitz
Rating: Unrated (likely R for profanity, adult themes)
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Theater: Film Streams