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DVD review – L7: Pretend We’re Dead

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Sarah Price’s crowdfunded documentary on the “rags to riches to rags”  story of L7  is a cut ‘n’ paste film that tells the tale of the LA Grunge band from 1985-2001 and subsequent reformation in 2015. L7: Pretend We’re Dead is a reasonably standard rock-doc cut-up of talking heads, tour footage and backstage antics. Price had over 100 hours of footage to go through, and the result pays off, especially for fans who haven’t seen them live.  The film feels like it should be watched on VHS, alongside 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

The film takes the unusual editorial decision never to show the 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,  the lairy chords of songs like ‘Fast and Frightening’ and ‘Shove’ and the chaos and energy of their live shows are thrilling.

What makes this film a joy to watch is L7’s no-bullshit attitude and their sense of humour. 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 it, again and again. Their gender was not there to define them; their image was owned by them and them alone. Watching them plaster the studio next to Mötley Crüe in male porn mags to as a response to the Crüe decorating their booths in pictures of boobs during the ‘Hungry For Stink’ recordings is particularly satisfying.

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.

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 you love who are in debt. Even though they were a force of nature live, at their peak the band only ever made $500 each from performing.

Things get a little bleaker later in the film, as core relationships within the band disintegrate 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: 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.

Available on DVD or rent via streaming services.

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