“L7: Pretend We’re Dead” is an unflinching portrait of a band with a hard core sound, hardships

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Even those who are only familiar with L7 through the California rock band’s contribution to the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack, will appreciate the documentary “L7: Pretend We’re Dead.” The film is now streaming on Hulu, and it is as in-your-face as the band.

L7 and being a “girl” band

There are some consistent themes throughout “Pretend We’re Dead.” The band members do the voiceover work. The visuals are all from recorded performances, home videos by the band members. In one interview after the other, the band is asked “What’s it like to be an all-girl band?” or some variation of the question. However, that the audience is shown the myriad times the “girls plus rock band” question, it is easy to realize that the query could get tedious. As I watched the video in subsequent viewings, it occurred to me that no one would ask a band comprised of males that question. It was the early 1990s, and still, no one seemed used to the idea of women and rock ‘n’ roll, despite four decades’ worth of history.

The ironic thing is that watching the group’s on- and offstage antics, all set to the group’s thunderous, riot grrl onslaught reminds viewers that rock ‘n’ roll sometimes transcends gender. The band’s energy displayed itself in twirling, jumping, drum set flipping, and other, often sexually charged behaviors. And for those audience members who are familiar with watching male punk and metal bands indulge in the kind of debauchery-disguised-as-humor, it becomes clear that the behavior is not gender-specific, no matter how many times a reporter’s question tries to make it seem like it is.

L7, grunge, and fame

It was inevitable that the band would rise to prominence. For fans who wanted the face-melting sound of heavy metal, combined with the sludgy menace of grunge, topped off by a middle-finger to everything punk rock attitude, L7 was the perfect band.

The film reveals that the members of L7 knew the members of Nirvana, and seeing the Kurt Cobain-fronted band on the cover of a national magazine felt like, in the words of one band member, “watching your little brother or sister get famous overnight.”

The band did rise to prominence, and after being signed to an independent label, did get signed to a major label, but the price of fame never yielded huge paychecks for the quartet. As one member put it, ” Sometimes when you’re ahead of your time, you’re just behind on your rent.”

The years of touring and recording with little to show for it financially took their toll on the band. At first, when one musician would quit, she would get replaced, until the band fell apart in 2001.

Some scenes are difficult to watch, the narration difficult to listen to. For example, the beloved roadie who died on the tour bus. Nothing is mentioned of his cause of death, but his passing, plus that of Cobain made at least one member of L7 consider that there might be such a thing as too much partying. Another sad scene is when the band is offered an opportunity to buy back their leftover albums and can’t afford to. The copies go into a landfill.

Between 1985 to 1999 L7 released four studio albums. One of the best remains 1992’s “Bricks are Heavy.” In 2015, the band reunited. The members credit fans in the digital age for chronicling the band and keeping L7 alive. “We kind of owe it to our fans not to pretend we’re dead,” one member said.

The film offers fans hope at the end – – the band gets back together. The final performance shot shows the women relatively tame-looking in black tanktops, shirts, and jeans, their hair shining with health or product, or both, as opposed to the greasy, matted, sometimes badly colored looks they favored in their youth. While the women might have grown older, they are certainly not dead. The lacerating chords, the pounding drums, the low-pitched vocals are still there, waiting to teach another generation what rock ‘n’ roll means.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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