Riot grrrl’s in the middle of a cultural victory lap. In the past year alone, the early-’90s punk feminist movement has seen some noteworthy milestones: Sara Marcus published Girls to the Front, a terrific and meticulously documented history of the movement; NYU’s Fales library opened the first comprehensive archive of riot grrrl zines; and Kathleen Hanna was honored with a star-studded (Tavi Gevinson! Kim Gordon! Kim Gordon’s kid!) Knitting Factory tribute show filmed for an upcoming documentary on her career. Even before it was announced last week that her one-time solo project Julie Ruin is heading back into the studio, Hanna’s name seemed to be hovering in the air. Even The New York Times could not resist waxing nostalgic.
Into this fortuitous moment comes the DVD release of Who Took the Bomp?—-Kerthy Fix‘s documentary chronicling Hanna’s feminist electro-punk band’s final tour in 2004. The recently launched D.C. queer web zine Where the Girls Go screened the film on Saturday night to a sold-out crowd crammed into the imaginatively decorated (life-size, zine-style cut-outs of the band greeted attendees in the doorway), and woefully un-air-conditioned Gold Leaf Studios. The event brought together fans young and old, united by a passion for feminist punk, radical politics, and also that really gross and universally leveling feeling of sweat pooling in the small of your back.
Coupling sequin-laden performance montages with fly-on-the-wall tour footage and interviews with band members, Who Took the Bomp? explores the personal politics that animated Le Tigre over its eight-year run. Worn out from riot-grrrl infighting and the media’s misrepresentation of the movement, Hanna—-along with beatmaker Johanna Fateman and future queer heartthrob JD Samson—-started the band in 1998 as a way to infuse messages of feminist empowerment into the traditionally dudely world of electro music.
Like any good rock doc, Who Took the Bomp? indulges in requisite moments of backstage goofiness. And if this is Le Tigre’s Don’t Look Back, the role of Donovan is played dutifully here by Slipknot, with whom the ladies shared the bill at New Zealand’s Big Day Out Festival and plot, with sarcastic glee, a backstage meeting. (Fateman pretends to have a younger brother who’s a fan, and poses for a picture with one band member whose look can only be described as Hellraiser chic. “Timmy will be so excited!” Hanna squeals.)
But the film’s at its best when it digs a little deeper, interrogating the difficulties of bringing queer positivity to a wide audience (the band decides to pull an ad from Jane magazine when the publication shrinks from using the word lesbian) and Hanna’s notoriously prickly relationship with mainstream media. Hanna was always uncomfortable when the media portrayed her as the figurehead of riot grrrl, and here she voices her frustration at journalists who continue to define her legacy through the famous men she’s often associated with. Riffing on another trusty rock doc trope (foreign journalists say the darnedest things!), Fix focuses on an encounter between Hanna and a radio host in New Zealand who won’t stop asking her questions about one of these men in particular. “I understand you once wrote some graffiti on Kurt Cobain’s wall,” he says. “I wrote, ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” Hanna answers, in the polite but wearied tone of somebody who’s had to answer that question incessantly over the past 20 years.
Hanna’s not the only focal point, though. Fix’s film provides well-rounded portraits of the other band members, including Samson, the proudly mustachioed lesbian who’s gone onto become the frontwoman of the band MEN and music’s most visible poster girl for female masculinity. Being a queer icon, the film shows, can be trying. While in New Zealand, she goes on what she thinks to be a date with a woman, but when the woman goes on a homophobic rant about how “nasty” lesbians are, Samson realizes there’s been a misunderstanding: This woman thinks Samson is a gay man. She leaves without correcting her and relays the incident to her bandmates with humor, but it’s maybe the most poignant moment in the film.
Fix, who co-directed last year’s Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, doesn’t quite plumb the depths of how provocative a moment this was in Le Tigre’s history (er, herstory?): Having just released its unexpectedly glossy major-label debut This Island, the band was courting a new audience and risking alienating fans who’d originally identified with its DIY ethos. But even if this dynamic is only implicit in the film, it still adds up to an engaging portrait of a band navigating the conflicts of making music with a message.
“I always fear erasure,” Hanna says toward the end of the film, expressing requisite worries about her band’s legacy. But Who Took the Bomp? should serve as a lasting document of Le Tigre’s message—-and the packed house sweating it out on Saturday night proof that there’s are still plenty of people still willing to listen.