New Documentary L7: Pretend We're Dead Restores the Legacy of One of L.A.'s Best Bands

L7: Suzi Gardner (left), Donita Sparks, Dee Plakas, Jennifer Finch
L7: Suzi Gardner (left), Donita Sparks, Dee Plakas, Jennifer Finch
Rob Sheridan

Despite their self-professed "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story, L7 have survived all that surrounds them, almost by accident.

The narrative of the L.A. rock quartet had been lost in the sands of time, until the band's own fans demanded it be told on L7's terms. L7: Pretend We're Dead, the Kickstarter-funded documentary spanning their original 16-year run, lives up to their high expectations. Director Sarah Price has raged through 100 hours of footage from those years (1985 to 2001) to compile it ahead of an official L.A. premiere at the Vista on Nov. 17. (Watch an exclusive clip from the documentary below.)

Inspired by the Kickstarter's success to resurrect the L7 monster, Sparks and her original co-conspirator Suzi Gardner met for the first time in 14 years last spring. Together with bassist Jennifer Finch and drummer Dee Plaka, they played reunion shows throughout the summer and will play two local gigs at the Troubadour (Nov. 20) and Echoplex (Nov. 21) to celebrate the documentary's premiere.

"It's a weird thing to watch all this stuff," Sparks says of the finished film. "I was surprised by some of the things my bandmates said that I didn't know. You think a falling-out happens because of reason A, but it's a combination of reason B and C."

The foursome watched it recently in Finch's hotel room in Australia. When the band rekindled last year, they vouched that all prior drama was water under the bridge. You wonder whether the film's portrayal of Finch's decision to leave the band, Gardner's eventual departure and their label dropping them would regurgitate old grudges. But Sparks insists it didn't.

"Everybody's sorry for stuff," she says. "If you start doing an autopsy, shit comes back. When it got heavy toward the end of the film, everyone in the room was just very quiet."

The film's tone is set with a grainy, hand-held opening shot. "Just shut up and fuck me, dammit!" comes Sparks' voice from the back of a van. For a split second, you think you're watching raw film of an on-the-road dalliance. Really it's Donita and Suzi scaring some people off.

That was L7's sense of humor: unapologetic, in-your-face, occasionally terrifying. The media were obsessed with their gender, which overshadowed talk of the music. But it's their red-raw rock and the reaction to it that's at the forefront of this film.

The first track to explode on-screen is "Fast and Frightening." "She's fast, she's lean, she's frightening," are the lyrics, an apt description of L7: Pretend We're Dead itself. It's a window into a pre-online era; a race through the hurricane of making it as a band, never feeling as if you've made it, then breaking up before you'd realized any of it was real.

The best parts of the documentary are its displays of an era time has forgotten. Early footage of shows depicts an audience devoid of cameras and cellphones; the crowds look almost animalistic in comparison to today's. L7's trips to places like Japan and Brazil pre–social media show relative unknowns being greeted like international superstars. When the band are picked up by a limousine in the U.K., viewers are as flummoxed as L7 to learn that they've made it in Europe. Juxtaposed with that is footage of Sparks back in the States having to pee behind her van because the gas station attendant wouldn't let her inside.

L7 were everything that the immortalized L.A. acts from the late '80s Sunset Strip were not. In Silver Lake, Sparks and Gardner were part of an art-rock DIY scene heavily promoted at the time by L.A. Weekly (where both women worked for a time). Finch didn't know how to play bass, so she made up for it with hair-flailing onstage vitriol. The foursome weren't glam, but they were physical. "If we were gonna be looked at," says Donita on-screen, "we were [gonna be] thrashing."

Their scene peers — Nirvana, Mudhoney, the Red Hot Chili Peppers — have been written about far more. But eyewitness accounts in the film from the likes of Lydia Lunch, Shirley Manson, Krist Novoselic and Butch Vig remind you just how adored L7 remain. Footage of Nick Cave shows the singer partying on their tour bus while they were driving at 70 mph. "That went on for about five hours," Sparks says. "Us and the Bad Seeds dancing all the way to Philadelphia."

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Without shoving it down your throat, the film also acts as a reminder of how much the band challenged everyday sexism. Sparks wanted to be a voice for gender politics, right down to her choice of a typically masculine Flying V guitar. There's a brilliant moment when they're next door to Mötley Crüe in the studio while making fourth LP, Hungry For Stink. To counteract the Crüe's decision to plaster their booth in women's boobs, L7 ordered in a bunch of porn mags and plastered pictures of penises to their own walls.

The film's only cliché is at its heart; it's another tale of musicians who sacrificed everything and barely saw a dime. "It's a common story of a lot of bands," Sparks admits. "But we were an uncommon band. We gave a shit about something."

Indeed, the film also takes in the Sparks-instigated Rock For Choice concerts, which featured every major band at the time playing for women's abortion rights.

Once L7 signed a "shitty" major deal, they were thrown into the same studio where Nevermind was recorded. Expectations for their 1992 album, Bricks Are Heavy, were enormous. But wherever L7 went, calamity struck. Behind-the-scenes footage from their music video for "Pretend We're Dead" reveals Gardner almost losing an ear as a crane hit her head. Sparks infamously hurled her tampon at a crowd at the Reading Festival because they were pelted with mud. On British TV show The Word, Sparks exposed herself in an act of absurdist frustration.

Despite bigger gigs, the band felt their trajectory was slowing. There's a shot of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain from Lollapalooza's backstage area, as if to evoke a sense of how self-destructive this scene could be. After the death of Cobain in 1994 and of L7's own roadie Umbar in '95, Finch, worried for her own future, left in 1996 by way of a pencil-written note. At the time, the band members say they were each making $500 a month.

When you watch the film's final scenes, it's a wonder they managed to get back together. L7 were dropped from their label the day they played an outdoor London show with KISS. Gardner then quit via phone call. Their final distributors went broke so they had to dump their CDs in a landfill. They sold their road cases.

"We were ill-prepared for that," Sparks says. "Status quo in the music business is to keep the band ignorant and happy. Then when they're over, they're over. It's a tough road, and it's not an unusual story. We were pretty honest about ours."


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