Pretend We're Dead

MVD Visual
rating icon 9 / 10

Track listing:

In-between Wendy O. Williams and PUSSY RIOT there was L7. Frequently hailed as a foundation block to the Riot Grrrl movement, L7 was more like the audile representation of Tank Girl and her smarmy squadron of nut-busting, nuke-fried punks. It's not just because the group's song "Shove" made it into the Lori Petty-portrayed film adaptation. If you've ever read the trailblazing comic originated by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, can't you see Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas taking charge as Tank Girl, Sub Girl, Jet Girl and Boat Girl, maybe even Barney? Set to the sludgy backdrop of L7's "The Bomb", it makes total sense. All the unit ever needed was its own Booga, which many could argue was easily filled in by the band's exhibitionist male roadies.

There aren't many genuinely dangerous bands anymore, but L7—along with its raucous contemporaries, the LUNACHICKS—was clearly one of them. Whether you're talking the band's feral-striped body paint or Donita Sparks's dropping trouser with full bush on parade on the British music show "The Word", L7 lived a penniless though uninhibited life. The band's intent was to usher change, a goal it modestly achieved, even while struggling to be treated as a rock band, minus the differentiating tag "female".

L7 declares itself as going from rags to riches to rags again, clearing only five hundred a month per member at the height of its brief popularity in the grunge movement. "We came as authenticity," you hear toward the beginning of L7's whimsical yet despairing documentary, "Pretend We're Dead", as images roll of trash balls pelting the group onstage. Though Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner had started L7 in Los Angeles in 1985, the group's notoriety came on the heels of the come-and-gone success of CYCLE SLUTS FROM HELL. More accurately, as American heavy metal was nose-diving, L7 found solace as broke-ass transients in Seattle crash pads, the band's company being fellow up-and-coming legends MUDHONEY, GWAR and NIRVANA.

The documentary takes you through L7's initial founding, when Sparks and Gardner were flanked by male players who were gone as quickly as they arrived. At a time when female rockers who weren't Lita Ford, Joan Jett or VIXEN struggled for acceptance, L7 took a page from Wendy O. Williams, Betsy Bitch and THE SLITS, shoving punk-fused feminism full-frontal. A band citing itself more in tune with MOTÖRHEAD and FUGAZI than POISON, L7 made its impact upon the grunge and college rock scenes, a limited demographic that had stopped buying its records as of 1997's "The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum".

"Pretend We're Dead" is a brutally honest recount, with Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner and Jennifer Finch handling the narration of the band's story. This is a group of women who came together through the Silver Lake arts scene, and other pockets of L.A. (Finch having the necessary music connections). The women found their way through indie sensation Sub Pop before L7 broke out in 1992 with major label backing for its "Bricks Are Heavy" album. We see the band in the midst of recording that pivotal album with producer Butch Vig, right as NIRVANA unexpectedly blew up with "Nevermind". It was a moment that the similar-sounding though heavier L7 was expected to live up to. Already facing an uphill battle in which most of its interviews focused on gender above music, the crossover accomplishments of "Bricks are Heavy" and "Hungry for Stink" are remarkable enough.

Despite being a primal, throbbing force onstage, L7 never matched NIRVANA's sales mark, a high-reaching plateau that was even too much for Kurt Cobain to digest. The indignity of L7 being dropped by Slash/Reprise on the same day that the band opened for KISS in England began a downward course from which the group never recovered until reuniting in late 2014 after a 13-year layoff.

"Pretend We're Dead" features guest testimonials from X's Exene Cervenka, Joan Jett, NIRVANA's Krist Novoselic, GARBAGE's Shirley Manson, THE DONNAS's Allison Robertson, VERUCA SALT's Louise Post and others. Included in the package is a bonus section of band-shot videos, the most hilarious segment involving a van-to-van food fight with the rest of the group's crew on the interstate. There's also the goofy pseudo-documentary, "L7: The Beauty Process", a must-see for the band at its best live form along with a hilarious sketch where the members are recruited as music tastemakers.

Fans will never forget the legend of the 1992 Reading Festival, where Donita Sparks flung her used tampon at an impatient crowd which was pelting the band with mud for delay of start due to equipment malfunction. The full story of the Reading debacle and accompanying footage are presented on "Let's Pretend We're Dead", and it hits hard, nearly as hard as learning the fate of unsold copies of L7's ill-fated, self-released "Slap-Happy".

The shit list is thankfully kept short here, but the shit itself hits the fan all over "Let's Pretend We're Dead". Director Sarah Price sensibly juggles L7's shock theatrics with introspection to offer a well-balanced, occasionally jaw-dropping overview of a band that had much more to give in 1999. Summoned back into action by its now-grown-up clique of freak magnets, it'll be interesting to see where L7 goes from here. The group's new, politically charged single, "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago", indicates the pieces are falling back into their snug places.

Author: Ray Van Horn, Jr.
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