The Gits, again: This indie-band film is both a definitive documentary and real-life whodunit. (Photo by Jackie Ransier, courtesy 'The Gits')

'The Gits,' the Movie

Dennis Harvey July 2, 2008

Every campus, every city, probably everybody you know has stories to tell about the rock band that didn’t Make It, but should have. Most often they fall apart—despite all potential and local fandom—due to interpersonal problems, financial stress, or because certain members simply move on to other locations and professions. Whenever talent goes unfulfilled, it’s sad. But it’s seldom as tragic as in the case of The Gits, a Seattle band on the verge of major-label signage and potential greatness when lead singer Mia Zapata was murdered in 1993.

Kerry O’Kane’s documentary, simply titled The Gits, offers both an appreciation of a unique quartet’s too-brief career and consideration of the mystery that—until quite recently—surround Zapata’s death. It’s playing twice in the Bay Area over the next few days: Saturday night at Oakland’s Uptown Nightclub, Monday at SF’s Embarcadero Center Cinemas. At the first, former Gits drummer Steve Moriarty will also play live with his current band American Professionals; at the latter, he and other "special guests" will be on hand to answer questions after the screening.

Starting out in 1986 as a college band out of Yellow Springs, Ohio, The Gits—Zapata, Moriarty, bassist Matt Dresdner, and guitarist Andrew Kessler aka Joe Spleen—moved to Seattle just to get out of the midwest, and because they’d "heard there was a little bit of a music scene there." Oh yes there was: To their (somewhat mixed) good fortune, Seattle would soon be crowned the new Capital of Rock, thanks to the "grunge" school that exploded into early 1990s popularity thanks to Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Thus every Seattle band was, until the bubble burst, under close scrutiny by a music industry anxious to snap up the Next Big Thing.

It took The Gits longer than many to "get signed," precisely because they didn’t sound like anyone else on the scene. While the grunge bands were basically reinventing 70s rock and heavy metal, The Gits played punk—with a female singer who didn’t resemble the Riot Grrrl frontwomen so much as a new-school Janis Joplin. (Though you could also say she sounded a bit like a lower-register version of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker.) Like Joplin, she was wasn’t "girly," liked a drink or three, had considerable shambling magnetism onstage, yet offstage was self-effacing and generous. She and the other Gits lived their version of a Sixties communal lifestyle at the "Rathouse," a Seattle residence rented from a self-proclaimed warlock. It soon became one of the hubs for partying and practicing in Seattle’s burgeoning music world.

If The Gits didn’t quite fit in with the trendy "Seattle sound," they were nonetheless admired by their peers—being invited to open for Nirvana and Tad on a European tour, being filmed for the definitive rise-and-fall documentary of the era, Hype!. They’d released one album on their own; after various major labels had looked and passed, they were finally about to be signed by Atlantic. Then on July 7, 1993, her body was found late night on a residential street. Not long before she’d left friends at a bar, saying she’d take a cab home. She’d been raped and strangled; going on the theory that women are usually killed by people they know, police interviewed and took DNA samples from half the Seattle music scene. That added to "an incredible sense of disempowerment," suspicion and fear in what had until then been a trusting, relaxed community. For many, it was the end of the Seattle idyll—with Kurt Cobain’s death still ten months away.

Dynamic performance footage, interviews with bandmates, friends, family, and fellow musicians (including members of 7 Year Bitch and Bikini Kill, plus Joan Jett) and more make The Gits a definitive documentary. (Well, almost: Zapata’s private life is left pretty much unaddressed. Did she have boyfriends? Girlfriends?) When O’Kane started making the documentary several years ago, Mia Zapata’s murder remained unsolved. Over a decade later, however, improved investigative technology found the culprit—making this a real-life whodunit with a surprise ending.