Director Sarah Price’s crowdfunded L7 documentary is a “rags to riches to rags” tale of the LA Grunge band from 1985-2001 and subsequent reformation in 2015. L7: Pretend We’re Dead is a fairly standard chronological rock-doc made up of talking heads, tour footage and backstage antics. Price had over 100 hours of footage to go through, and the results pay off, especially for fans who haven’t seen them live. Although the communal experience of watching this in a room full of fans at Doc ‘n Roll Film Festival is a joyful one, I feel like I should be watching it on VHS, alongside 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
The film takes the unusual editorial decision never to show the band interviewed in the present. We see musicians like Lydia Lunch, Shirley Manson, Krist Novoselic and Butch Vig as talking heads, but the core L7 members Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch, and Demetra Plakas are only ever heard in voice-over.
Perhaps it was a mutual decision between Rice and the band, but it’s a little alienating – the nuances of their feelings on the events they’re talking about hidden from view. It’s a hell of a ride though. Hearing the lairy chords of songs like ‘Fast and Frightening’, ‘Slide’ and ‘Shove’ rip through the cinema speakers and seeing the chaos and energy of their live shows is thrilling.
What makes this film a joy to watch is L7’s no-bullshit attitude and their sense of humour. They are incredibly funny backstage, on stage and in interviews. Their notoriety was always well documented (most notably Donita chucking her used tampon and mud-slinging hecklers at Reading and pulling her knickers down during The Word). But hearing about it in their own words, years later it’s even more apparent why they behaved like that. Refusing to pander to dullard rock blokes (and power-suited daytime TV presenters) and their “what’s it like to be a girl in a band?” line of questioning, the put-downs and one-liners weren’t enough. They were going to show that their gender was not going to define them. They owned their image and challenged machismo nonsense along the way, mostly with actions, not words.
One particular highlight was during the Hungry For Stink recording sessions. The band plastered their studio in dick mags in response to Mötley Crüe decorating their booths with pictures of boobs next door. The irony of the male engineer quipping “I’m not paid enough to be surrounded by these many penises” just proved their point.
L7 were lauded by their peers both now and back when Sparks led the Rock For Choice gigs with lineups including Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Fugazi and Rage Against The Machine, and they had a hardcore fanbase. So why weren’t they bigger? Interviews with the band in 93’ about they “hadn’t increased their fanbase one iota” and reflections in the present point to a band at odds with the expectations of a record label. Marketing bad behaviour has kept male rock music afloat for decades; the same can’t be said for women either in the 90s or now.
It’s hard to square scenes of L7 playing packed venues of frenzied fans in Brazil and Japan and partying on tour buses with Nick Cave with them being skint. But being on a record label is like taking out a big bank loan, and the alternative music world is full of bands in debt. Even though they were a force of nature live, at their peak L7 only ever made $500 each.
Things get a little bleaker later in the film. Core relationships within the band disintegrated after L7 were dropped from their label, the same day they supported KISS. Jennifer Finch quit with a handwritten note, later Suzi Gardener left with a phone call. Suzi’s wistful explanation that she had turned 40 and was facing being without health insurance, wondering if she might have had a family addresses that question few young musicians want to think about: “what do you do when you’re not in a rock band anymore?”. Those moments are reminiscent of Anvil: the story of Anvil, but in this film, we don’t get an answer.
“Sometimes when you’re ahead of your time, you’re behind on your rent”, says one of the band. That sums up the film and the band perfectly- L7 were too big for the underground but too edgy for the mainstream. They existed on the fringe of Grunge, but never really broke big as a result.
The film never really delves too much into the personal lives of the band, apart from the way the band started to break down. References to external relationships, childhood anecdotes and drug addictions are just footnotes and asides.
But as the timeline arrives at the present, the reunion brings back their (well fuelled) fire, and it’s a pretty fine coda. This is a film made with love, by a fan for other fans.
L7: Pretend We’re Dead definitely takes fans out for quite the rock and roll road trip, we’re just not quite granted access all areas.by