Since you had to “tour” to unlock songs, “Pretend We’re Dead” was a tune I heard over and over again — and, inevitably, fell in love with. From its catchy composition to the fact that I could “play” it and get 100% on the “Expert” level, I could hardly get enough. I bought it on iTunes (back when buying songs on iTunes was still a thing), and listened to it feverishly on my iPod Nano. In my mind, making the transition from Disney Channel pop songs to ‘90s-era rock (I was also big on Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the time, and still am) made me cool.
As Spotify wasn’t around in 2008, and as most 11-year-olds aren’t prone to doing much musical exploration in their spare time, though, I only listened to “Pretend We’re Dead” until it started to wear around the edges. Somehow I had never thought about exploring L7 any more than I had on Rock Band 2.
The song sat in my library for years, popping up every so often on shuffle. So surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2014 that I became the L7 fan I should have been in the years prior. I rediscovered them while watching the John Waters black comedy Serial Mom (1994), in which they cameo as a band called Camel Lips during a pivotal scene.
So taken aback by their live musical performance in the film, I decided that it was my duty to try to consume even more. I tried out a couple of their albums — forcing me to readjust my ears to their raucous aggression — and after repeated listens aplenty, I slowly but surely turned into the passionate fan that I am now.
Late last year, I hit the summit of my adoration of the band when the music documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead was announced. It urged me to become the same obsessed listener I was all those years ago, as if it were my duty to maintain their legacy until the movie’s release. Especially as of late, the band’s third and fourth albums, Bricks are Heavy (1992) and Hungry for Stink (1994), remain to be among the most frequently rotated CDs in my 2007 RAV4.
In the windmills of my mind, L7 exists solely at their 1992 pinnacle, when they seemed to be on top of the world and when bassist Jennifer Finch’s hair was still long and lollipop red. But as revealed by L7: Pretend We’re Dead (which has played in select theaters across the country these last few months but is now sitting comfortably in the confines of VOD), L7’s apparent skyrocketing to fame arrived after a tireless half-decade of working. And even that skyrocketing to fame came and went lightning quick.
The first act of the film describes how the women of L7 came together, and how things started picking up in what seemed like no time. The excitement displayed is palpable. But like most musician-centric docs, this serves as a fake-out of a come-up, an optimistic opener that holds tightly onto the “what could possibly go wrong?” jinx of a question until things do start actually going wrong.
Weirdly enough, L7: Pretend We’re Dead is more infatuated by the comedown: the comedown that resulted after their label realized that they’d never be moneymakers; after ages started increasing and the consistent making of good money starting seeming much more appealing; after band members left; after everyone got so burnt out a hiatus lasting from 2001 to 2014 happened.
The candor spilling into the recounting of the downfall is refreshing, and the way the band’s members, Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Finch, and Dee Plakas in no shape or form hold onto their pasts with the same melancholic yearning of a person who peaked in high school is remarkable.
But L7: Pretend We’re Dead doesn’t celebrate all the amazing things the band did as passionately as it could. While there’s some attention given to their many notable friendships, their groundbreaking founding of benefit concert series Rock for Choice, their infamous television and live performances, and their impact on their peers as well as younger generations of female rockers, director Sarah Price only touches on these things briefly, instead emphasizing the struggles with needlepoint precision.
Though this is important — Gardner at one point tells audiences that, even at their most seemingly successful, she and her bandmates still were struggling to get by — we wish that the balance between what made L7 so unparalleled and influential and what made their trajectory start souring leaned more on the side of the former.
It doesn’t help that none of the band’s members were willing to give talking head interviews: while there are plenty of voiceovers, the inability to see facial expressions change as certain events are discussed deters a lot of the movie’s emotional potential. And the guest appearances, which highlight Garbage’s Shirley Manson, The Distillers’ Brody Dalle, the legendary Joan Jett, and others talking about why they love L7 so much, feel kind of throwaway: Price never digs quite deep enough, as if she brought them in to throw in a few good sound bites.
But much of what L7: Pretend We’re Dead does is impressive. Because Price clearly wasn’t able to get L7’s members in front of the camera, she utilizes archival photographs and video footage to make up for it, and that helps immerse us in the different eras into which we’re thrust. And I like how subtly the band’s best songs sneak into the mix without breaking the momentum through extensive concert footage.
But part of me wishes that L7: Pretend We’re Dead were more tonally optimistic, exaggerating the band’s wild formative years when necessary and even more showing just what a memorable reemergence the group has seen these last few years. (Which is, unsurprisingly, only lightly talked about during the last four minutes or so.) It all feels too bleak for a band so ferocious. But for fans of the quartet, it’s a treat to get explanations behind so many moments that defined their musical output. And by putting so much of themselves on the line, newcomers might find themselves fans, too. Just don’t expect the pep of Cameron Crowe’s PJ20 (2011) here. B
1 Hr., 26 Mins.
L7: Pretend We're Dead November 8, 2017
suppose my introduction to grunge icons L7 arrived around 2008: “Pretend We’re Dead," their 1992 single (and only hit) that arrived right at the peak of the grunge boom, was one of the playable songs on Rock Band 2. Being that 11 is an age that’s rough for anyone — just when middle school’s starting, just when puberty’s beginning — all I ever did outside of school and soccer (both miserable) was play the simulated guitar on the video game.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.