Hit So Hard | reviews, news & interviews
Hit So Hard
Hit So Hard
Camera turns to the drummer as Hole rhythm section tells her life-and-near-death story
If the subtitle - The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel - didn't make it clear enough, Hit So Hard was never going to be your average "rockumentary". At about eight minutes in, before the titular drummer properly establishes us in the 1990s US grunge scene that forms much of the backdrop to her story, Schemel is already speaking openly and frankly about the addictions to alcohol and drugs that cost the lives of friends, her role in a platinum-selling rock band and very nearly her own life.
To get the obvious out of the way first: Patty Schemel is, almost probably, the greatest rock'n'roll drummer you've never heard of. Born in Washington State, she played in punk bands from high school age and became such an influential figure in the Seattle music scene that Kurt Cobain tried to recruit her for Nirvana when the original drummer left the band. Schemel instead became the rhythmic rock of Hole, the band fronted by the late Cobain's widow Courtney Love, performing most notably on their critically acclaimed 1994 album Live Through This.
Love is unapologetic in the documentary that Hole was "her" band, not a collective
If ever there was a band or an album best-suited to act as a metaphor for the relationship between music and chemical addictions, Hole and Live Through This probably both fit the bill. The album was released the week after Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the home that he shared with Love, and two months before Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a heroin overdose. Drugs and alcohol were rife among Schemel's peers, and footage from the time - particularly clips featuring the drummer and Courtney Love - makes for uncomfortable viewing in hindsight.
Among music fans, Hit So Hard is a significant film on two counts: firstly for its as-yet-unseen footage of Cobain, Love and their baby daughter Frances Bean (pictured right, with Cobain and Schemel) filmed by Schemel when she lived with the couple; and secondly for bringing together the four members of one of Hole's "classic" line-ups (Love, Schemel, guitarist Eric Erlandson and Melissa auf der Maur, who replaced Pfaff on bass) for the first time since the troubled recording sessions for Celebrity Skin in 1998 (the four performed two songs together at a screening of the documentary in Williamsburg earlier this year). Love is unapologetic in the documentary that Hole was "her" band, not a collective - at one stage she describes "unlistenable" debut album Pretty on the Inside as "announcing [her] persona as a cunt" - and in 2009 she revived the name to release and tour the fairly mediocre Nobody's Daughter.
But that's the problem. In a year that's already given us the near-perfect Shut Up and Play the Hits, the film about the final days of LCD Soundsystem, it's all the more noticeable that Hit So Hard isn't really sure what it wants to be. Despite its billing, at times it's more a documentary about Hole the band than about Patty's life, her addiction and recovery or even her place in the canon of female drummers - revealing interviews with, among others, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson and the Bangles' Debbi Peterson are among the film's highlights. Schemel's mother remarks, near the beginning, about how annoyed she gets when "they put the camera on the singer", and when your singer is as notorious a publicity hound as Love it must be even easier for everybody else to slip out of the spotlight.
It's a bit of a waste because - and I say this as a devoted fan to whom Love and her band once meant about as much as a band can mean to a teenager – Schemel is a more than worthy documentary subject. She is funny and engaging, and in that sense her drug story is reminiscent of somebody like Mike Doughty's. While it remains a cautionary tale, Schemel doesn't obfuscate or gloss over her role in slipping into heroin, crack and whatever else she could lay her hands on. "Maybe I should learn a trade," she says, musing on her relationship with music as she recalls her 11th stint in rehab, in the perfectly pitched crotchety tones of somebody's father.
The choices by director P. David Ebersole seem questionable at times too: liberal use of split-screen, captions hammering certain points home harshly, wobbling the camera in and out of focus to indicate that somebody is reminiscing about getting high. The four-way postcard effect used when Love intervened to send Schemel to Hawaii for rehab is just weird.
In the end, whether you're a fan or coming to Schemel's story fresh, the documentary's positives outweigh its faults. It's a testament to the drummer's record-keeping abilities: much of the footage - filmed on Hi-8 during the Live Through This tour - was her own. The candid scenes of Cobain and Love as new parents in particular, and the intensity of the classic Hole's live performances, make for poignant and emotional viewing.
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