Patty Schemel doc 'Hit So Hard' remembers living and dying in the 1990s
By Cindy Widner, Fri., March 11, 2011
Now that the Eighties revival, which camped out in the pop-cultural landscape for far longer than the real decade lasted, is winding down, it appears it's time to start excavating the pendulum swing that followed. There's already been at least one attempt to resurrect Doc Martens, not to mention the slight uptick in (ironically? oh yeah: irony!) page-view-friendly mainstream-media retreads of playlists from the barista glory days. Odds are it's only going to snowball from here.
Since nostalgia rarely comes without a heaping dose of revisionism, most of these sweet remembrances of the decade that kicked off with Slacker and ended in Y2K hysteria fail to note that it also saw the coining of the term "heroin chic" and, like the Sixties, perhaps more than its share of rock & roll overdoses.
Also notable in its absence, despite its ground-zero formation and subsequent commercial and critical success, is any mention of Hole, the band that presented to a generation of girls the feminist id on a radio-friendly platter.
That erasure is doubtless at least partially due to frontwoman Courtney Love's uncute-ifiable rage (and later, her aggressive, moneyed weirdness), the band's unabashed ambition, and its failure to abandon pop structures and standard musical technique in a milieu that at least superficially disavowed traditional modes of power and fame. They were a little bit riot grrrl, but they were a whole lot rock & roll.
"This is an important band," says P. David Ebersole, director of Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel, the doc about the drummer at the center of the Hole maelstrom. "Why make a movie about a drummer in her band if you're just going to slag on Courtney Love like everybody else? I think she's important. And Hole are really important."
In some ways, the timing of Hit So Hard couldn't be more perfect. Structured around Schemel's Hi8 footage from those dark and heady times, the film hews closely to her biography, touching on her early drumming and drinking (ages 11 and 12, respectively), her coming out, and her central role in the Northwest music scene before unflinchingly recounting her path from being Hole's most crucial and well-known drummer to drug addiction, homelessness, and recovery.
Schemel's story is compelling on its own, but the solid storytelling and intimate access of Hit So Hard make it a document of an era as well. The drummer lived for a while with Love and her late husband, Kurt Cobain – with whom Schemel was very close – and Ebersole includes here previously unseen (and very sweet) footage of the two with their young daughter, Frances, as well as backstage and concert footage. For fans, much of that footage might put a lump in your throat.
Ebersole and husband/co-writer Todd Hughes wisely make use of the love and respect Schemel engendered, interspersing interviews with her family and bandmates, including Love, Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt), Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson, Beastie Boys), and Schemel's hero, lesbian folksinger Phranc. Sarah Vowell, whose book Radio On: A Listener's Diary quintessentially mapped the role of radio in 1990s culture and politics, is also on hand with her full quiver of insight and wit.
And yet, the focus never strays from Schemel, fascinating and important in her own right. "If you stay focused on Patty's story, the movie told you what could and couldn't be in it," says Ebersole. "We have lots of other footage that potentially has some kind of celebrity aspects to it. There's one scene that we didn't use where they all go out to dinner with Michael Stipe in Tokyo. Ultimately the beat was never really about Patty; the beat was about, 'Hey, look, we can throw these celebrities in our movie!' Once we really got focused on the idea that it was a movie to tell what Patty went through and what her journey was, everything [we included had to relate to] that."
Without being moralistic, or even really cautionary, Hit So Hard inevitably travels to a dark place, one that drew the eyes of an MTV nation, and one at the center of Schemel's world: In 1994, in the space of two months, Cobain committed suicide and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff overdosed on heroin. The reactions of the film's participants as they recount that time is one of the most affecting parts of the movie, and one for which Ebersole avoids gratuitous exploitation.
"The sequences about Kurt really play back to the issue of how dangerous the world was," he says, "and how Patty was so close to those who did not make it through. So it resonates. Similarly with Kristen. It was like, well, now it's a double whammy that two people you were so close to didn't make it through. It made it so that you almost had to tell their part of the story to have the Patty story make sense. The movie culled itself."
Hit So Hard doesn't shy away from Love's notoriety or the feminist ambivalence around her and her persona; Gordon, Schellenbach, and Vowell offer madly articulate and informed front-seat observations on Love's persona and how it was received. "It was unavoidable not to be honest about the chaos of working with Courtney Love," Ebersole points out. "It's all over the footage, and everyone talks about it, and Courtney talks about it herself.
"But the balance of that for us," he continues, "is that we don't feel like people talk often enough about how wicked bright and talented Courtney is. We felt like how do you make a movie about the drummer of Hole without reminding people that all of that noise about Courtney's sort of tabloid life is distracting from the idea that she actually also is really powerful and has something to say?"
The film is unflinching when it focuses on the controversial end of Schemel's tenure in the band, during the making of its third album, Celebrity Skin. The process by which the band was purposely divided and conquered, with the drummer losing out, provides an unexpectedly fascinating look into the icky politics of the record-label recording studio.
Partly because of that controversy, and partly because the world still sees great woman drummers as a rarity, if not nonexistent, the movie spends some time making sure the viewer knows just how good Schemel is, and the credits feature a roll of great woman drummers past and present.
"There was a kind of public perception about Celebrity Skin, that perhaps something happened where Patty couldn't hack it," explains Ebersole "We just felt like, once we had done our research, that that was 100 percent not true. The idea that she had gotten kicked off of that record because of drugs was also not true."
That departure also marked the beginning of Schemel's hardest downward skid, one that ended with her crack-addicted and homeless under a bridge – "totally wearing a homeless windbreaker" and a ball cap, as Love recalls Schemel saying when her former bandmate called to ask for money. Something made her send her home movies off for safekeeping with her father before she fell, probably the same thing that made her live to tell the story.
Schemel now lives with her wife and has a dog-care business – "working with animals is totally a lateral move," she says in the movie – but she also teaches girls to play drums and volunteers at Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. Ebersole explains the importance of her legacy: "There's the beat that Phranc says earlier about being gay, about how people say, 'Oh, it's a big liberal world now and everything's okay and let's not bring it up and you gays, you're just complaining about your situation.' I think there's a parallel to that about the idea of female rock stars and musicians. You can say there's nothing important about specifying that Patty is a woman drummer, and yet it is necessary to keep talking about it. There are not enough women getting recognized or being given that ability to sit in that seat."
Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel
World Premiere, 24 Beats Per Second
Tuesday, March 15, 9:15pm, Alamo Ritz 1
Friday, March 18, 7pm, Vimeo