'L7: Pretend We're Dead' Is the Most Intimate Depiction of the Riot Grrrl Pioneers
Guitarist/vocalist Donita Sparks explains the trailblazing feminists' hands on approach to their long-awaited, emotional new documentary.
Photo by Rob Sheridan
The boundary-breaking members of L7 were never big on tradition. So it should come as no surprise that their years-in-the-making documentary, L7: Pretend We're Dead, doesn't follow the typical "rags to riches to rags" story arch, nor does it infer that its very existence might be the reason the 90s vets are rocking together again after nearly 15 years of estrangement. Out worldwide on October 13, the film is bold, sonically impressive and rowdy—much like L7 themselves. L7: Pretend We're Dead tells the tale of the anti-glam squad rockers' trajectory, from takeoff to crash landing, set during the backdrop of the hopelessly nostalgic grunge era, and includes some interesting self-fulfilling prophecies about fame as we see them unravel.
Combining the band's own vintage reels, intimate testimonials and high-voltage performance clips, L7: Pretend We're Dead manages to capture the band's experience so well because it was shot mostly by them, through their own perspectives and in their own words. It all started when co-founder Donita Sparks began archiving L7's collection of videotapes and old photos for the band's Facebook page. Though long disbanded, the feminist pioneers maintained a following for their melodic, ballsy sound—one that combined heavy metal chops with surf rock influences and art punk aesthetics, all served up on a Give No Fucks platter, with zero effort made to stylize themselves as garnish.
Guitarist/vocalist Sparks, guitarist/vocalist Suzi Gardner, bassist/vocalist Jennifer Finch and drummer Demetra "Dee" Plakas, had filmed dozens upon dozens of hours of themselves goofing off while crossing America's highways on tours, traveling on overseas promotional trips, and their stay in Wisconsin during the making of their acclaimed 1992 album, Bricks Are Heavy, with producer Butch Vig. "We were just shooting this stuff to crack ourselves up," Sparks explains. "Out of boredom, you start to entertain yourselves. It was a time that was recordable because videotape was cheap, and it was a time before cell phones and selfies, so you were engaged."
After seeing some of the footage, director Sarah Price decided to take a stab at turning it into a full-scale documentary. Known for her cult films, American Movie and Summercamp!, she was convinced she could weave a narrative together with what she was given, plus some grainy archive clips of the notorious pranksters' more cunning stunts. The only new elements came by way of audio interviews conducted with each of L7's members—all done separately. "The band was estranged at the time that this began," Sparks states, plainly. "I had to contact everybody to see if they would do interviews, and Jennifer had some of the earlier footage of the band in her possession."
As Sparks continued to unearth footage and photos for Price, the L7 Facebook page started gaining traction — and soon they began receiving inquiries from concert promoters the world over. "I threw it [a reunion] out to the band and said, 'I need to know in nine months.' Everybody said yes. It took Suzi the longest; it took a full nine months for her to decide to do it because she hadn't played guitar in 15 years. It was under her bed, untouched, for 15 years."
At the same time, a Kickstarter fund was set up with Blue Hats Creative to help complete L7: Pretend We're Dead. "[Price] had the footage, I kept feeding her photographs, as did the rest of the band, and she pieced it all together."
Starting with their mid-80s inception through their 2001 demise, L7: PWD covers the band's key moments as they ascended to the forefront of the alternative music milieu during the 90s, and reminds us how big they managed to blow up while rejecting every manner of lady-like behavior along the way, all the while (spoiler alert) remaining broke. Tongue-in-cheek, raw and unabashedly feminist – all traits that oozed into their brand of aggressively catchy music – the ladies are downright hilarious when left to their own devices, as evidenced throughout the documentary. "If we had had a person shooting that, it would have been much different," Sparks says.
As expected, all the major touchtone events of L7's career are included: their record label switches, the MTV acceptance of Bricks are Heavy, the founding of their women's rights group, Rock for Choice, and the infamous 1992 Reading Festival incident during which a frustrated Sparks threw a used tampon into a hostile, mud-pelting audience. And, of course, fame's downsides are thoroughly explored: drug and alcohol abuse, the struggles of having to answer questions about what it's like to be in an "all girl" band over and over again, getting dropped from their major during a pivotal point, and Gardner's resignation amid a very real midlife crisis leading to their overall implosion.
Sure, there are also appearances by the likes of Joan Jett, Shirley Manson and the Distillers' Brody Dalle singing their praises, but the real draws here are L7 themselves, who in the ending montage, exhibit a honed prowess onstage caught during a reunion concert. Anyone hoping for insight into what the members of L7 were doing during those hiatus years, however, might come away with an urge to fall down a Google rabbit-hole instead. That facet of the story is skipped over in the film; a deliberate decision made by both band and director.
"There's no viewing of the body," says Sparks says with a laugh. "We showed the death and the rebirth, but there's gonna be no autopsy. We opened up as much as we're going to open up," she continues. "I don't think anybody wants to see L7 raking leaves… We showed a lot of emotion in the interviews, something that we've never done before, ever.
"When you're in a rock band, especially an all-female rock band, you've got to front a lot that nothing gets under your skin, nothing hurts your feelings," she continues. "We had to be tough cookies, a lot. And so for us to go there emotionally, that's as far as we're going… Sure, some people want to see us raking leaves. Well, you know… you're not going to see that."
"Going there" still meant examining why they broke up all those years ago, something dissected heavily in the documentary, but not so much in real life. Remarkably that bit of closure only happened towards the end of L7's 2016 international reunion tour—after nearly a year and a half of sharing stages together across three continents—when they each finally heard the others' take on the matter in the film.
"The first time everybody saw the film together was in Australia [in October of 2016]," Sparks recalls. "I had seen the cut, but they had not. We were laughing a lot, and then when it got heavy, we all got really quiet. When we reunited, we never did an autopsy of why things happened or why we quit. We didn't even go there. When we decided to reunite and do this film, everything was water under the bridge. So when it got heavy, it got quiet. I think everybody felt a bit of responsibility… and everybody probably felt a bit fucked over."
Exorcising their demons must've worked wonders, because L7 have slowly been building momentum again, performing strings of concert dates to go along with screenings of L7: Pretend We're Dead, and, most recently, dropping a new single, "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago," on Don Giovanni Records—their first new music in almost two decades. Of course, it could also be about timing. The last time L7 were this proactive, it was during one of America's other more bleak conservative eras.
"When we started Rock for Choice, that was with Bush Sr. as President, and we thought that was bad. Then we though Bush Jr. was bad, and now this," she says. "This is really weird." Her advice? "Be proactive. Give back, start a band, make a short video and put it on YouTube… something of resistance. And it can be anything: get artistic, or get political. Or both."
In other words follow L7's lead. This is the band, after all, who wrote the lyrics, "…got so much clit, she don't need no balls."
Zena Tsarfin is staying ballsy as hell on Twitter.