“The Gits,” a true and tragic rock ‘n’ roll saga, emphasizes the legend of its title band and the alluring qualities of lead singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered just as the band had reached the brink of national exposure. On the heels of biopics about acts on a similar precipice (Joy Division, the Germs), Kerri O’Kane’s even-keeled docu sticks with recollections from musicians, friends and Zapata’s relatives without resorting to creating a hero figure at the story’s core. Pic, which opened July 7 in 21 U.S. markets, should appeal to historically minded punks and Seattle rock enthusiasts.
The Gits were about to launch their national recording career by signing with Atlantic Records shortly before Zapata was murdered on a deserted Seattle street in July 1993, the repercussions of which resonated for years in the city’s rock scene. The band originally hailed from Antioch College in Ohio before setting up shop in Seattle and recording for local labels. At a time when Seattle was ground zero for grunge, Zapata, Steve Moriarty, Andy Kessler and Matt Dresdner were building a separate yet equally rabid following with a unique blend of blues and punk rock and holding court for younger acts such as 7 Year Bitch, which was among the female bands inspired by Zapata.
Performance footage reinforces the belief that the Gits’ shows were an intense experience for the crowd. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether they would have found a larger audience, and the film, for the most part, avoids the issue, sticking with definitions of Zapata’s character — “modest, affectionate, sincere and private” is one comment — and the distinctive songs she wrote with guitarist Kessler.
Nearly two-thirds of the film assess the rise and impact of the Gits, which seems to have occurred in a universe apart from Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Most of the final half-hour tracks the efforts of the local music community and Joan Jett to solve Zapata’s murder; the advent of Home Alive, a co-op that teaches women self-defense; and the eventual arrest and conviction of Jesus Mezquia (the first-ever conviction in Washington from saliva DNA evidence).
The fact that more is not made of the story’s criminal aspect feels like a missed opportunity; just 10 minutes more spent on the subject could have increased the impact of the final reels. Pic makes no mention of the various TV shows that did segs on the Zapata murder, among them “48 Hours,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted.”
While members of the Seattle Police Department throw up their hands after not being able to pin the crime on someone Zapata knew, a fact that insults her friends, courtroom footage of Mezquia’s sentencing in 2004 finds the family and her bandmates bonding, the scars of the loss still highly evident.
O’Kane and editors Allan Spencer Wall and Lorena David maintain a tonal consistency by making each comment count toward a clear, well-defined picture. Performance scenes, all succinct, should elicit renewed interest in the Gits catalog.