Hot Docs Reviews: 'The Punk Singer', 'Finding the Funk', 'Mistaken for Strangers'

Saw a trio of rockumentaries on the last weekend of the festival, so it makes sense to post their reviews together.

The Punk Singer
(USA, 80 min.)
Dir. Sini Anderson
Programme: Next (International Premiere)
Photo courtesy Pat Smear
It's hard not to discuss The Punk Singer mentioning this year's other grrrl punk movie Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The latter film certainly entered the festival with more buzz, but the former deserves more. The Punk Singer, a biographical rock doc about Kathleen Hanna, might have a bit more trouble finding an audience than the Pussy Riot pic, though, since it's more of a behind-the-music tale than an exposé of current events. This is not to say that The Punk Singer lacks punch. Far from it. This tale of the founder of groups such as Bikini Kill and Le Tigre says as much about cultural politics as Pussy Riot does.

The Punk Singer tells audiences how Hanna pioneered a new wave of feminism with her raw vocals and frank, honest lyrics. Hanna's success was an anomaly in a genre and music scene that was violently dominated by testosterone and male egos. Director Sini Anderson mostly allows Hanna to tell her life story in candid retrospective interviews, but she offers other perspectives on Hanna’s influence on music and feminism alike by talking to various parties who were involved in Hanna’s success. Like Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, The Punk Singer has a grungy low-res look and a chord of anger to match the work of its subject. The Punk Singer should speak to many fans inspired by Hanna’s music and could make some new ones along the way.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Finding the Funk
(USA, 78 min.)
Dir. Nelson George
Programme: Next (International Premiere)

Finding the Funk plays like a poor man's Muscle Shoals. I am not necessarily trying to say that Finding the Funk is a bad film, but the main thing I took away from the documentary was a reinforcement of my opinion that Muscle Shoals is one of the best documentaries of the year. Compared side by side, the thoroughness and careful consideration for the audience lets Shoals blow Funk clear out of the muddy southern water.

The key difference in the films is that one can approach Muscle Shoals with complete ignorance to its subject and emerge just as pleased as a die-hard fan of the subject would. Finding the Funk, however, caters strictly to funk fans. Shoals lets the musicians do much of the talking, yet it also allows their music to speak for itself. Funk rarely—if not ever—offers a musical cue to signal to viewers the subject of discussion. If you're like me and have a terrible time remembering the names of songs, all the insight from the participants will go right over your head. It’s hard to appreciate all the perspective into the funky tunes without any actual taste of the music.

Director Nelson George tries to help viewers expand their knowledge of funk music by offering frequent facts called “Funk Chunks” that appear as footnotes at the bottom of the frame. Unfortunately, though, the Chunks are more distracting than helpful, and their cheesy “Pop Up Video” flavour gives Finding the Funk the vibe of a TV special. An impressive roster of music legends provides some fun (but again, they’re no match for the heavy list of talent in Muscle Shoals) and voice of God narration by Questlove of the Roots offers some factual guidance, although he might be preaching to the converted. Finding the Funk should please fans of the genre, but casual viewers should best see Muscle Shoals instead.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

Mistaken for Strangers
(USA, 80 min.)
Dir. Tom Berninger
Programme: Nightvision (International premiere)
Photo by David Andranko
I did a double take when I saw that Mistaken for Strangers was listed in the Nightvision programme of the festival and not in Next alongside the other films about art and artists. The placement makes sense after seeing the film, though, for this pic by Tom Berninger more about his own narcissistic self-loathing than it is about his brother, Matt Berninger, who is the frontman of the indie rock band The National. Tom, a director of schlocky B-horror films, lands a gig helping the crew on The National’s world tour and decides to bring his camera along to film his brother and the band in action. Instead of gaining much insight into The National’s creative process, though, Tom presents an assortment of self-referential outtakes of himself screwing up his duties, pestering his co-workers, and mugging at the novelty of his own filmmaking.

Fans of The National might enjoy Tom’s oddball goofiness and cheap indie aesthetic, but Mistaken for Strangers reeks of amateurism as Tom turns the camera back on himself and makes a film about his inability to make a film. (The final concert scene is excellent, though!) Shot on the fly as half-assedly as one can imagine, Mistaken for Strangers is eighty minutes of shoddy backstage whining. Tom is an overbearing and annoying subject, and while he provides some insight to the perils of sibling rivalry, one can’t help but grow weary of seeing him muck up one task after another. Mistaken for Strangers, sadly, wins the title for most over-hyped film of the festival. 

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)