FILM REVIEW: “L7: Pretend We’re Dead”

Donita Sparks, Jennifer Finch, Suzi Gardner, and Dee Plakas, best known as L7, were one of the most influential bands of the 1990’s. You’ll read that they heavily inspired the Riot Grrrl movement – and they certainly did. But, they inspired everyone, regardless of genitalia. Releasing six albums from 1988 to 1999, L7 was pure rock n’ roll. They would be called grunge, lumped under the “alternative” catch-all label, and otherwise pigeonholed into palatable categories for marketing purposes, but they were nothing more or less than straight-up rock. Best known for their single “Pretend We’re Dead,” or “Shitlist” from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, the band hovered beneath the mainstream radar for most of their career. They made the cover of Spin magazine, played Lollapalooza, and created some truly rock n’ roll controversy, but they never broke the mainstream at the level of numerous lesser bands. L7: Pretend We’re Dead, directed by Sarah Price, tells their story – warts and all.

The film is made up of archival footage and the bands own home videos taken from the studio and on tour. Their voices narrate the story from their perspective; however, they are never shown on film in talking-head style. When each member first speaks, a “voice of” caption is provided, but after the first 10 minutes I never really knew which member of the band was speaking unless some context was provided. This was a little disappointing and I think showing them today would have added a layer of transparency to their story. I loved every minute of the footage presented, but would have appreciated some candid on-screen moments with the members as they reflected on their career.

After each member gives a little of their personal backgrounds, the film traces their formation, early gigs, and their eventual rise from releasing albums for independent labels like Epitaph and Sub Pop to their major label releases, their disbandment, and recent reunion. Along the way we’re treated to some excellent footage of the band recording Bricks Are Heavy with Butch Vig, behind the scenes of the “Pretend We’re Dead” video shoot, partying with Nick Cave on the Lollapalooza tour, and the organization of the Rock for Choice benefit concerts, of which they played a prominent role.  A few notable musicians make appearances, like Exene Cervenka, Joan Jett, Lydia Lunch, Shirley Manson, and Krist Novoselic. But, their screen time is minimal as the film lets the band tell their story.

At a few points during the film, the band mentions their efforts to be judge as a group of musicians, rather than a group of female musicians. Never playing up a sexual angle, often looking disheveled and ambivalent to media expectations, the band desperately wanted to be recognized for their music, not their gender. I was somewhat surprised that the film didn’t make this a bigger point. Certainly, one has to wonder if they had tried to be sexier, or act more feminine, or in any way compromise their image after signing to a major label, would they have been more commercially successful? Sure, Courtney Love often looked more punk than her pop-star peers of the era, but she still had loads of sex appeal – and she played into it. She even followed up the grungy and brilliant Live Through This with the polished and vapid Celebrity Skin. But, L7 never once went in that direction. In fact, they followed their hit record Bricks are Heavy with the even uglier Hungry for Stink. For a retrospective film, I would have been interested to know if they ever received any label pressure to soften their image or their sound.

This film that will either reaffirm your love for the band or inspire you to delve into their wonderful discography for  the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with them, this film is a fine introduction. Uncompromising, uninhibited, and often making their peers seem like a bunch of pussies, L7 was a truly great band who always stayed true to their art and vision. That’s why they’re still relevant today and why you should see this film.

The film is available to buy or rent on iTunes now.

– J. Kevin Lynch

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