Kerri O'Kane's new film The Gits succeeds as a documentary—she makes the viewer fall in love with her subject—and then some. Working with sparse footage from the 1980s and '90s, O'Kane still manages to make us fall head over heels for the rag-tag bunch of Antioch College-educated misfits better known as the Gits.
Primarily we fall in love with Mia Zapata, a singer who sounds like a punk rock Janis Joplin—both in her soulful voice and her ardent personality, which mixed brashness, kindness and vulnerability in equal parts. Zapata never became a bona fide star, but she had star quality, the ability to command attention without ever seeming to seek it. Above all, we fall for the music. Compared to many of their contemporaries, the Gits were instrumentally brilliant, playing fast, tight, classic punk rock which took a radical left turn when Zapata added her voice to the mix.
In 1993, the group was on the verge of signing with Atlantic Records. They'd just come off a successful European tour, and many were touting the group as Seattle's next big thing. One night in July of 1993 while walking home from a Seattle bar, Zapata was raped and murdered. She was 27 years old.
The documentary would have ended on this note, but as O'Kane was finishing the film in 2003, events took a dramatic turn: police found a convicted felon whose DNA matched the murderer's DNA that was found on Zapata's body. In the courtroom scenes, there is little rejoicing over the conviction. Zapata's family and friends weren't seeking vengeance; in the end, they were simply seeking justice.
The Gits takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ride. For the band members, their time with Zapata was the most heady and creative time of their lives. Their friends and colleagues 7 Year Bitch even named an album after the singer—they called it Viva Zapata. And fifteen years after her death, thanks in no small part to this documentary, it seems that the legacy of Mia Zapata and the Gits will indeed live on.
"Whirlwind" demonstrates that The Gits might have blossomed into one of Seattle's great rock bands.
It would be a stretch to suggest that The Gits' music made it one of the great bands, sung or unsung, of the early-'90s Seattle rock explosion. It might even be a stretch to say that the group — which recently served as the subject of a documentary — could have matured into greatness. Sadly, though, it never got the chance, cut down during its brief ascent by the 1993 murder of singer Mia Zapata.
But if The Gits' members were pushing toward bigger and better things, "Whirlwind" would have surely helped pave the way. The song opens with a lockstep rhythm over which guitarist Andrew Kessler pops out a simple riff, which in turn keeps its focus on the horizon even as the chords shift and grow more complicated.
It's when "Whirlwind" hits the pre-chorus that the rhythm begins to unravel, as Steve Moriarty's drums temporarily unmoor themselves from the beat and lie in wait for Zapata to lead her men into the searing chorus. Far from dissipating the tension, that move multiplies it, so that what could have been an unfettered blast instead ripples with possibility. Zapata and her bandmates were just learning to harness their power, and it's one of many tragedies surrounding The Gits that they never got the opportunity to find out where it would have taken them.