Pretty much exactly two years ago, we told you about L7: Pretend We’re Dead, the Kickstarter-funded documentary about the ’90s grunge band. The doc is being released on VOD and DVD on October 13, but first it’ll screen at Nitehawk on October 5. If the words “shitlist” or “wargasm” mean anything to you, you’ll want to watch this on the big screen, with a beer in hand, because it’s an awesome blast from the past.
Several bands and musicians from this era have recently gotten the doc treatment, including Nirvana, The Melvins, and Butch Vig. But this doc stands out for its sheer amount of behind-the-scenes footage, from L7’s start in the late ’80s to the breakthrough release of Smell the Magic in 1990, to their near disappearance after the death of Kurt Cobain and the rise of Green Day.
Like Mudhoney and others who came out of the Sub Pop scene, L7 was constantly buzzed about as “the next Nirvana.” After they moved from Los Angeles to Seattle at the suggestion of Courtney Love (she had played with their bassist, Jennifer Finch), the band released a single, “Shove,” that became an underground hit. Then, in 1991, Nirvana hit it big just as L7 was recording its first major-label album with Nevermind‘s producer, Butch Vig. Of course, L7 was distinct from bands like Mudhoney because its members were all women. Much like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, they had to deal with that constant question: “What’s it like being a girl in a band?”
L7 was “openly, brazenly feminist,” as Shirley Manson puts it; they put on pro-choice benefits and changed up sexual standards by getting their male roadies to dance on stage in their undies (at one point, they’re even shown asking Ian MacKaye of Fugazi to be their go-go boy; he doesn’t look amused). At the same time, it’s clear their primary intention was to rock, not to be political messengers. “We really wished that gender would just go away, that we would just be seen as rock musicians,” guitarist and vocalist Suzi Gardner says in the documentary.
Nevertheless, the film trots out a who’s who of female performers– Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka of X, Joan Jett, and members of Bratmobile, Veruca Salt, The Donnas, and more– to speak to how L7 fought industry prejudices to empower and inspire their female listeners. As for their male fans, Krist Novoselic, of Nirvana, notes that L7’s rockage transcended gender.
Thankfully, the talking heads are kept to a minimum, and, as with Dave Markey’s wonderful grunge film 1991: The Year Punk Broke, the bulk of this doc is dedicated to photos and home-video footage of the band goofing off: crashing on the floor or in vans with bands like GWAR and Nirvana; vamping in bathrobes at their Madison, Wisconsin hotel suite during the recording of Bricks Are Heavy; seemingly driving Butch Vig crazy with their studio antics; doing kegel exercises with whoopee cushions; and even dancing on the bus with Nick Cave during Lollapalooza in 1994. Of course, there’s also footage of their hard-charging, head-banging stage shows, with all the requisite moshing and stage-diving. And recollections of their more notorious moments on stage: that time Donita Sparks threw her used tampon into the audience at Reading Festival in 1992, and the time she dropped trou on live British television.
Toward the end of the doc, however, we learn it wasn’t all fun and games. Even as L7 was playing to thousands of rabid, pogoing fans in Brazil, they were only making about $500 a month each, sans health insurance, due to what is said to be a “shit” deal with their label, which ended up dropping them after they failed to become the next Nirvana. They were also dealing with the sort of drug and alcohol issues that ended up killing some of their friends. Finch was the first to quit, in order to go back to college, and then Gardner followed, facing the harsh reality of being in her 40s and being a “working stiff at best.”
So what brought L7 back? You guessed it: the internet. “The fans kept us alive,” Donita Sparks says of their 2015 reunion tour. “We kind of owed it to them not to pretend we’re dead.” To coincide with the film’s release, the band is playing some West Coast gigs in September, with more dates to come.