My only personal encounter with the band L7 came years after its demise. It was June of 2008 and Donita Sparks was touring with drummer Dee Plakas in support of a new solo project by Donita. The music the band was performing that night was every bit as quirky as late stage L7 but without all of the sonic bombast that shaped the band’s sound in the early ’90s. It seemed to me that Dee and Donita were having fun on stage, but this was certainly another in a long line of financial dead ends for them.
After the band closed the show (without playing any L7 songs), Donita and Dee headed to the merch table out in the foyer of the venue to sell CDs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. They posed for photos like they have done thousands of times before and happily went above and beyond to make sure all the fans had their signatures on countless “Bricks are Heavy” albums.
I bought a “Donita Sparks and The Stellar Moments” EP off Donita and told her I liked the blog she was writing for Firedoglake. She flashed a smile that showed off her half-rotting, half-missing teeth and made sure I got an extra free sticker. That was it. The music magazine and MTV darlings who were right there with heavyweights Nirvana and Pearl Jam just 15 years before were off to complete the co-headling tour with The Donnas. After that, L7 had no public face. The band’s fate was a mystery. The performers returned to civilian life. L7’s internet presence was nearly non-existent.
In 2014, a band Facebook page, usually reserved for posting vintage photos and little else of consequence, announced the band would reunite for some European festivals and shows in larger cities across the U.S. Joining Donita and Dee on the road were guitarist Suzi Gardner and bass player Jennifer Precious Finch. On the heels of that announcement, the band also revealed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary film about the band’s history which they had begun working on in 2013. The band asked for $97K and easily brought in more than $130K from nearly 1,500 backers.
There was no timetable for delivery of the finished product, but the band and its hired filmmakers promised that the film would be finished in due time. Roughly two years after the announcement on Kickstarter, the band made a pretty much final version of the film available to backers via a stream in late December 2016 (supposedly the only thing that might be changed is the final song).
For as vibrant as each of the personalities are in the band, I was expecting something grand out of this. This was one of the great American punk rock bands of all time after all. Hell it even starts out promising enough with the band sitting in the dark in a van presumably outside a venue sometime in the early 1990s. You see shadowy figures bouncing back and forth and what sounds like Finch yelling “JUST SHUT UP AND FUCK ME DAMN IT” with a window rolled down. Two men walking down the street hear it and bust out laughing.
It soon becomes apparent, however, that this is going to be nothing more than a digital scrapbook of the band’s time spent mainly on the road from the late 80s to the early 2000s. It is essentially audio of the four band members talking over photos and videos of their younger selves for the entire 90 minutes. The only people interviewed on camera were fellow rock musician admirers such as Crist Novoselic, Allison Robertson of the Donnas, Exene Cervenka and Shirley Manson. No anecdotes are offered. Only banal opinions like “they would rip it up”, “they rock”, “they’re powerful” and “they were electric.”
As for the origin story of these women, we’re treated to a few throwaway minutes that don’t really get into the nuts and bolts of how they became the oddballs they are. Gardner allegedly has roots in Oklahoma, but that bit of info is left out. Jennfier was a prominent teenage photographer who documented the L.A. punk scene before L7. It’s not mentioned. Donita’s backstory doesn’t really spend any time on her life in Chicago. Dee is just dropped right in there without any explanations of how she became a drummer or what she was doing before L7.
L7’s rise to major label status is chronicled through a blurry flash of photos and videos of wild performances and other off-stage hijinx (much of what is shown never raises above the level of goofing off). Two significant news-making performances involving the Reading tampon incident and Donita going naked on English TV do get considerable screen time, but it’s all covered in a rather matter-of-fact fashion unfortunately.
The film only dabbles in the recording process for each album and the songs and the creative process that went into them are never discussed in any detail. By the time the film exits the “Bricks are Heavy” stage of their careers, it turns into another one of these “rock ‘n’ roll regret” genre flicks where it’s mostly made up a lot of bickering over bad business decisions. The recent documentary on The Damned did the same thing, but at least those guys appeared on screen.
Finch’s sudden exit from the band during 1996 recording sessions for “The Beauty Process” could have been something that might have given more emotional depth to the story, but there is not much more revealed there than we already know. A death of a beloved roadie is mentioned as being something that affected the band very much during the tumultuous time leading up to Jennifer’s departure. Circumstances and cause of death are never revealed though.
Jennifer ended up continuing her musical career after L7, but also worked in web site development. A cancer scare in the late 2000s certainly threatened any future plans, but she was able to beat it. None of that made it into the film.
Gardner quit by telephone in 2001 effectively ending the band. In the most raw emotional moment of the film, she explains that at 40 she thought she fucked up her life and missed out on making a family and establishing the ability to financially support herself. “I don’t have health insurance. I am a piece of shit. What have I done with my life?” she says.
It would have been a perfect moment to look into what happened with Suzi’s life after the downfall of the band. Donita said the friendship ended, but other than that Gardner’s whereabouts from 2001 to 2015 are not discussed. We do not know if the friendship has been repaired or if the reunion tour is simply a business partnership.
It’s a shame there wasn’t someone doing the interviewing for this with the ability to steer the conversation into more interesting territory. As a summary of the band’s career this works, but it’s like reading a Wikipedia article augmented by YouTube videos of old performances. It very well could have pretended to be more alive.