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Originally published Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Mia Zapata, the Gits get their due in fan's documentary

Steve Moriarty had reason to be preoccupied when asked about the legacy of his band, the Gits. His house in the Oakland hills burned down...

Special to The Seattle Times

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A trailer for the documentary "The Gits" and videos of the band are at www.youtube.com, search for Gits.

Steve Moriarty had reason to be preoccupied when asked about the legacy of his band, the Gits. His house in the Oakland hills burned down last week, a victim not of lightning strikes and wildfires, but ancient wiring and a California heat wave.

"We made it out and all my animals are fine, but it kind of sucks," he says. "At least I have the movie as a distraction."

The movie is "The Gits," a lively and engaging documentary premiering Friday at Northwest Film Forum about one of the more noteworthy rock outfits to emerge from Seattle in the early '90s. The release coincides with the 15th anniversary of what many think of first when remembering the Gits: the murder of the band's iconic lead singer, Mia Zapata. The notorious crime went unsolved for 10 years, but that's not what drummer Moriarty or the film's director, Kerri O'Kane, want to memorialize. Most important to them is the music.

The Gits were playing speedy, torn-T-shirt punk when other Seattle rockers were hunkering down in flannel and experimenting with fuzz. Zapata and guitarist Andy Kessler wrote songs that were mostly fast and furious, with Moriarty and bassist Matt Dresdner providing blistering backbeats. Though they were a product of their time and place, the Gits were largely misunderstood when the eyes of the world were on Seattle and grunge.

"The Seattle thing was more of a heavy-metal garage-rock revival, and we were more of an English-style pop-punk band," Moriarty says of the Gits' brand. "That style later became huge with bands like Green Day and Offspring, but back then it was really small compared to the Sub Pop scene. Sub Pop was a rather exclusive little clique because they were one of the few labels that had money."

Their imprint in pop-music history may be shallower than that made by contemporaries like Nirvana or Soundgarden, but even without benefit of the Sub Pop imprimatur, it's a good bet that more people are still listening to the Gits than Tad or Love Battery. Moriarty sees ripple effects of the band's influence in e-mail every day, not least because of Zapata's charisma.

"It's high-school kids doing their social-studies report on the Gits," he says. "Or it's some women's-studies people from Columbia University saying they're writing a paper about the cultural influence of Mia Zapata on the women's-music movement."

It was a focus on the musical legacy that convinced Moriarty, Kessler and Dresdner to collaborate with filmmaker O'Kane when she came knocking. O'Kane was one of Moriarty's e-mail correspondents — a devoted fan who bought music and merchandise before dedicating herself to making a rock doc.

"My goal in making this film was to remember Mia as an artist and give The Gits credit as an awesome band," she says. "Mia had a really bluesy punk style, and she could actually sing. God knows what she could have become had she not been murdered."

Moriarty and the band had strict criteria about being involved with the film. It had to include a lot of live footage, be funny and not focus on the murder. "The Gits" does not ignore Zapata's death, but it is rightfully heavy on classic Gits performances.

A work-in-progress version played at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) in 2005. Since then, O'Kane and producer Jessica Bender have received an infusion of support that allowed for a restructure, additional filming, multicity theatrical distribution and a July 8 DVD release. After the SIFF screening, O'Kane was also offered more archival footage, including a delightful Seattle concert from March 1993 that captures the Gits playing in medieval knight and court-jester garb. It's an apt display of the wit that informed the band's persona and fueled their musical instinct.

Even before Zapata's death, the Gits suffered lots of disappointment. Moriarty says they often felt like the Bad News Bears. "We knew that things were changing, but I don't think we understood how good we were," he says. "I knew I loved it; I just didn't think that people would get it."

Thanks to "The Gits," people who didn't get it before may finally be getting their chance.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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