The feminist hijinks of ’90s punk band L7 are captured in a new documentary by UI grad Sarah Price

L7: Pretend We’re Dead

followed by a discussion with director Sarah Price, moderated by Kembrew McLeod
FilmScene — Saturday, Nov. 18 at 1 p.m.

L7’s feminist antics are featured in the new documentary ‘L7: Pretend We’re Dead’ — photo courtesy of Sarah Price

L7 performed one of the defining shows of the 1990s alt-rock era on April 3, 1992, sharing a bill with riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill and indie stalwarts Fugazi at Washington, D.C.’s Sanctuary Theater. It was the evening before a massive pro-choice march in the city, and the former church was charged with punk rock energy.

The four women of L7 founded the organization Rock for Choice in response to the first Bush administration’s assault on abortion rights, and the band was in their element that night. Sort of.

In the new documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, the group recalled that some D.C. scenesters were a bit taken aback by their onstage collaboration with Slymenstra Hymen, of the shock rock group GWAR. Slymenstra performed in her trademark spiked leather bikini as L7 laid down heavy-duty riffage that soundtracked her flaming acrobatics and fire-breathing routine.

“It was my impression,” L7 cofounder Donita Sparks recalled, “that the crowd wasn’t going as apeshit for Slymenstra. We wrapped our feminism in a bit of fun, whereas the Fugazi and Bikini Kill crowd were a bit more serious, which was the opposite of GWAR.”

Nevertheless, some in the crowd loved the irreverent gesture, including myself (I was rocking and rolling on the floor laughing, watching sparks literally fly). That ephemeral moment has now been preserved in all its glory, along with several other infamous pranks and provocations sprinkled throughout Pretend We’re Dead.

In 1992, L7 turned the tables on a mud-hurling Reading Festival audience while the band was having technical difficulties onstage. Sparks removed her tampon and hurled it into the crowd, screaming, “Eat my used tampon, motherfuckers!” — kind of like when Ozzy Osbourne shocked a Des Moines crowd by biting the head off a bat, but much cooler.

“At least there were no animals harmed in my performance art piece,” the guitarist observed, comparing the two infamous incidents.

On another occasion, she yanked down her pants during a lip-synced performance on the live BBC television show The Word and rocked out sans underwear, with only her Gibson Flying V guitar covering her privates. (Appropriately enough, she nicknamed that guitar her Flying Vagina.)

Sparks and fellow guitarist Suzi Gardner came out of an art-punk background, which they continued to embrace after forming L7.

“Yes, there may be a statement behind that action,” Sparks said, “and yet there isn’t. It’s an act of defiance, but it’s also cracking me up.”

While Sparks grew up in a feminist household, as a whole L7 marched to the beat of their own drum.

“We appreciated the seriousness of feminism,” she said, “but L7 are kind of funny people, so that’s just not how we rolled. For me being serious kind of sucks the fun out of it, so I prefer to be a bit more provocative. I like shock value. Still, we are living, breathing examples of the success of the feminist movement.”

Pretend We’re Dead director Sarah Price first discovered L7 in 1990 as an undergrad at the University of Iowa, where she earned a degree in film production.

“I played their first Sub Pop single on my show on KRUI, the student radio station,” she recalled, “and was a fan from then on.”

After graduating, she began playing in bands for 12 years — including an alt-country duo named Little Debbie Jug Band and Ambush #5. The latter group performed with Bikini Kill and did the riot grrrl circuit, and Price also played drums in a Milwaukee dance-rock band named Competitorr.

“That was one of the reasons I agreed to do this documentary,” she noted, “because playing in alternative rock bands in the 1990s was a big part of my life.”

For Price, music and movies are deeply interconnected. Competitorr and their friends in the garage rock band the Mummies played at the premiere party for Price’s breakthrough film, American Movie, which won the 1999 Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. This was followed by the acclaimed films Caesar’s Park, The Yes Men, Summercamp! and Youssou N’dour: I Bring What I Love, each of which she produced or directed (or both).

One of the best documentary filmmakers of her generation, Price brings out L7’s humor and pathos while avoiding many of the clichés that plague rock docs. After starting work on Pretend We’re Dead, her first formidable task was logging and cataloging over 125 hours of vintage footage, which became the film’s backbone.

“They were filming behind the scenes,” Price said, “filming on the road and having fun with the camera, and training their roadies to film as well.”

“It was this big gift that was dropped into my lap,” she continued, “all this footage that was shot by an insider rather than a documentary maker coming in from the outside and filming them. After watching the troves of stuff, I felt we could use it as verité footage. I wanted to drop the audience into that era and tell the story so that the audience would experience what the band was experiencing in real time, taking people on a journey. I wanted the film to have that time capsule feel.”

The band members carry the film with their irreverent personalities, absurd hijinks and deadpan responses to lame “women in rock”-type questions. When MTV’s Chris Norris broaches the subject, for example, Sparks shoots back: “How do you know we’re women?” On another occasion, the ladies plaster their recording studio with photos of naked men and invite Mötley Crüe — making an album next door — over to hang out. L7’s Hi-8 video recorder captures the Crüe’s wincing reactions and wounded masculinity in all their pathetic glory.

Sparks got the idea to do a documentary after she began archiving the band’s old footage before it all disintegrated.

“Then I thought, well, shit man, young people should really know about us,” she said, “because we had a blast doing all the shit we did. Yeah, we could be tough cookies, but we also could be really fucking funny. I thought that sort of angle of feminism needed to be represented for the public record.”

When Price was approached to direct Pretend We’re Dead, it was a natural fit. “I was very much part of that DIY world as a musician, but also as a filmmaker,” she said. “So going from seeing all those bands at Gabe’s to actually playing in bands around town a few years later, and then doing this film, it really rounded out that formative experience. It brought me back to that time in my life when I was wearing flannel shirts and spinning music on KRUI, and walking around campus with my guitar player boyfriend.”

Kembrew McLeod wants to learn how to breathe fire and rock out. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 232.

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