25 films that capture the history of punk, riot grrrl and beyond
A new wave of punk has taken the world and internet by storm. Recently, there has been a spike in movies about the feminist punk movement, and TikTok users have repopularized bands such as Bikini Kill and X-Ray Spex. In 2021, the history and legacy of riot grrrl appears across all social media platforms as veterans and new members of the movement educate and reeducate.
From the earliest years, punk artists have unleashed roaring feminist guitar anthems and delivered an intersectional approach to activism, gender equity, anti-racism, the celebration of queer lives and more. There's a lot to learn from the whole spectrum of punk movements across the entire globe. For fans of punk, riot grrrl, rock 'n' roll and beyond, here are 25 essential movies and documentaries that you need to see.
The Punk Singer
The Punk Singer is one of the most recognizable documentaries to come from the riot grrrl movement. Directed by Sini Anderson, the movie follows Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna as she unpacks where it all began, what inspired her and how the movement shifted as the ’90s came to a close. With raw footage of concerts, rallies and interviews, The Punk Singer provides viewers extraordinary insight into the core of the feminist ethos of riot grrrls.
The Afro-Punk documentary epitomizes that there’s nothing more punk than being Black in America. James Spooner’s 66-minute movie highlights the Black punks who were and have been pivotal in the punk movement as a whole while ensuring viewers understand the racism that exists within it. As a result of the documentary, the AFROPUNK music festival in New York was created. Every year, it features Black artists to showcase the incredible talents as well as the importance of their music to those in attendance. Rico Nasty and Tierra Whack are two of the more recent performers to grace the stages at AFROPUNK.
Amy Poehler’s Netflix original movie Moxie tells the story of a teenage girl as she navigates high school, the patriarchy and sexism. After she discovers her mother’s (portrayed by Poehler) collection of riot grrrl memorabilia, she sets out to dismantle the patriarchal structures oppressing her and her classmates. Featuring music by Tacocat and Bikini Kill, Moxie merges the feminist movement’s past with its budding future.
Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution
Nearly a decade before the riot grrrl movement began in Olympia, Washington, Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones ignited the queercore—previously known as “homocore”—movement in Toronto, Ontario. In Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution, various queer punk artists speak to their experiences as being LGBTQIA+ in the music scene. The documentary features interviews with iconic queercore bands such as Team Dresch as well as riot grrrl figurehead Hanna.
Not Bad For A Girl
Not Bad For A Girl features women of the ’90s who worked in various genres, including but not limited to grunge, indie and punk. While the movie was directed by Lisa Rose Apramian, Courtney Love of Hole and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana are credited as co-producers. As supporters of the movement, they were able to assist in bringing in bands such as Bratmobile, Babes in Toyland, Lunachicks and Bikini Kill to contribute their voices to Not Bad For A Girl. It perfectly encapsulates women in alternative music during the ’90s.
Don’t Need You
Kerri Koch’s Don’t Need You tells the history of the riot grrrl movement. It highlights the importance of community activism on and offstage while drawing attention to the extraordinary effort made by the musicians involved in it. With glimpses of shows, fanzine, flyers and more, Don’t Need You is a perfect foundational documentary in understanding the riot grrrl movement’s origins and history.
All Over Me
While Alex Sichel’s 1997 movie All Over Me isn’t a documentary, it contains a plethora of elements that draw from the riot grrrl movement and punk as a whole. The movie was entirely inspired by the feminist punk movement and follows two teenage girls in New York City as they navigate self-discovery and self-acceptance. With a soundtrack featuring Ani DiFranco, Patti Smith and Sleater-Kinney, All Over Me is a riot grrrl-inspired love story that is a must-see for fans of the movement.
Lost Grrrls: Riot Grrrl In Los Angeles
The riot grrrl movement is oftentimes recognized for predominantly existing in the Pacific Northwest. In Lost Grrrls: Riot Grrrl In Los Angeles, director Vega Darling seeks to dispel this myth by presenting a different side of the movement. One that breaks away from the stereotype that all riot grrrls are white and perform the same musical stylings familiar to the movement. Riot grrrl didn’t exist in a vacuum, and Darling makes that abundantly clear in their documentary.
Following a young woman in New York City, Smithereens showcases the shifts that took place in the punk scene. From post-punk to riot grrrl, Susan Seidelman’s characters display a confused youth culture that sought something similar but greater than what they had come from. Smithereens stands as an integral film for riot grrrl fans, as it draws attention to the history of punk, the personal relationships that effect music and the self-discoveries that happen on the way.
Malcolm McDowell, Ice-T and Lori Petty star in the cult classic movie Tank Girl. Inspired by the comic of the same name, the movie follows Tank Girl (Petty), an antihero who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Its feminist themes have attributed to its cult following, but its soundtrack, put together by Love, has made it an iconic riot grrrl flick for fans of the movement and its feminist ethos.
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains tells the story of a young woman who becomes involved in an all-women rock band. Newly introduced into the world of punk, she discovers the trials and tribulations of touring, especially as a woman. The movie highlights the year before the riot grrrl movement that attributed to the need for a call to action for feminism merging with the punk scene.
Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary
The queercore band Tribe 8 provide an incredibly honest look into the life of LGBTQIA+ punks. With controversies, incredible performances and unique interviews from members of the band, Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary gives fans of riot grrrl an all-new perspective from within the feminist movement.
Times Square delves into the youth culture that was deeply influenced by punk ethos and sheds light on the frustrations with authority that fueled a great deal of the music in the genre. It follows two teenagers who come together despite having entirely different backgrounds. What unites them is their teen angst and desire to abandon the hypocrisy they were raised under.
Starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, The Runaways tells the story of how the two women came together to form one of the greatest punk bands in history. The biopic highlights the complexities of forming an all-women band during the 1970s. It’s one of the greatest biopics to come from riot grrrl bands, as Currie provided insight into crafting a script that was as true to real life as possible. For fans of the Runaways, Currie, Jett and riot grrrl, The Runaways is the ideal film.
Jett’s documentary Bad Reputation focuses on her life through music. From the Runaways to becoming Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, she ensures that audiences know her side of the story. Jett doesn’t care about her bad reputation, especially as she tells her truth in the 2018 documentary.
L7: Pretend We’re Dead
L7 were a force to be reckoned with during the popularization of grunge music. In L7: Pretend We’re Dead, the band showcase their rise, fall and redemption. Today, they’re considered one of the most influential bands to contribute to the riot grrrl movement, and, as such, their documentary is one of the most important for fans of feminist punk and grunge.
The Gits documentary follows the titular band as they confront the death of their frontwoman, Mia Zapata. The tragic story swept through the punk community and inspired several riot grrrl bands to come together to support the band’s efforts against random acts of racial and gender-based violence. In The Gits, fans hear what happened to the band in the aftermath, how they mourned Zapata and her legacy that lives on to this day.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Pussy Riot are one of the most recognizable contemporary riot grrrl bands due to their newsworthy and radical activism. In Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, their protest at the Russian Orthodox Church takes centerstage as the band confront fascism at one of the country’s most cherished locations. It was the moment they became a global name, making this documentary a unique must-see for any riot grrrl, past and present.
We Are The Best!
Taking place in Stockholm, Sweden, We Are The Best! follows three young women as they embark on their journey to become a punk band. While others continue to assert that punk is dead, they bring it back to life with their drive and determination. We Are The Best! is a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story that blends punk ethos with unapologetic grrrl power.
Hazel O’Connor stars as Kate in Breaking Glass, a woman determined to rise to the ranks in rock music. Nothing will stop her from her goals, not even the law. Set in 1980s London, England, Kate faces the complexities of mainstream popularity and staying true to one’s punk ethos.
A Band Called Death
A Band Called Death follows Death, a Black punk trio from the 1970s who challenged the overly white image of the music scene with their incredible talents. Their story is entirely unique, as they weren’t largely accepted by major labels or other large punk acts at the time. When they were asked to conform, they resisted to maintain their identities in every meaning of the word. A Band Called Death is an incredibly important documentary, as it showcases the true history of punk and Black people’s experiences in it.
Beyond The Screams
Beyond The Screams tells the story of the Chicano and Latino punk movement. It highlights the lesser-known stories of punks who fought against poverty and identity erasure while experiencing them as well. The history of punk is filled with racism and sexism. However, Beyond The Screams dismantles the conception that the ’80s and ’90s punk movement was only white and male.
Los Punks: We Are All We Have
Los Punks: We Are All We Have showcases just how important the punk scene is to Chicano and Latino young adults. The documentary focuses on Los Angeles, where the punk scene from the ’80s and ’90s continues to thrive, especially in the Chicano and Latino communities. To be a punk is to be apart of a community. While the popular notion is that it’s a global community, Los Punks draws attention to the fact that sometimes communities have to be built outside of the mainstream to find safety and comradery with people who share a common ground.
Punk In Africa
Punk In Africa features the punk movement in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The movement is ongoing as punks face social and political turmoil at every turn. As a result, Punk In Africa seeks to highlight how this multi-racial movement in these three African countries come together for a revolution.
Street Punk! Banda Aceh
At its core, punk aims to fight against oppressive structures: government, racism, sexism, homophobia, religion and more. In Street Punk! Banda Aceh, Maria Bakkalapulo documents punk musicians in Banda Aceh who use their music as a tool of resistance against religious opposition. It’s important to home in on the Indonesian punk movement to understand the global revolution and the common ground that most punks share—resistance. Street Punk! Banda Aceh opens the door for audiences to understand that importance while shedding light on global oppression.