The drumbeat of rock history
By David Malitz
Friday, May 11, 2012
Who is Patty Schemel? And why is she the subject of a documentary?
The answer to the first question is that Schemel was the drummer for Hole, the 1990s alt-rock band that doubled as the Courtney Love circus.
The group's drug-fueled madness and rise to stardom captured the thrilling, destructive bipolarity of the grunge era.
The answer to the second question isn't entirely clear, even after watching "Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel," which plays like an episode of "Behind the Music" masquerading as a feature-length rock doc. Schemel's life story contains many interesting pieces - growing up as a lesbian in a conservative rural town, battling a lifetime of drug addiction, spending years in proximity to Love - but "Hit So Hard" often finds her as an extra in her own film.
It's fitting, in a way. As a drummer, Schemel was always at the back of the stage, as much a witness to history as a participant. The first half of P. David Ebersole's film uses her as a gateway into the sordid Pacific Northwest underground rock scene, which in the early '90s was on the verge of a culture-shifting breakthrough. Everyone was using drugs - Schemel; her brother, Larry; her friend Kurt Cobain of Nirvana; her eventual bandmate (and Cobain's wife), Love. Heroin may as well have gotten billing as a co-star. The deaths of Cobain (suicide) and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (overdose) are a bleak reminder that an era that has been romanticized and mythologized in the past two decades was far from glamorous, and the first-hand accounts are often devastating.
The real treasure of "Hit So Hard" is the B-roll of grainy, shaky home videos from the '90s. Seeing a shirtless Cobain smiling and playing with his infant daughter, Frances Bean, is heartbreaking but also humanizing. He wasn't simply the miserable, self-loathing addict his suicide made him out to be, but also a goofy dad. Then there's the vault of Love footage. Whether it's Love's backstage behavior or onstage exploits, it's hard to take your eyes off her whenever she's on-screen. Being the center of attention is, of course, the guiding principle in Love's life, which is even more apparent in the interviews conducted for the film.
Schemel is clearly the focus, but the rest of her bandmates get plenty of screen time as well. Bassist Melissa auf der Maur is the philosophical one; guitarist Eric Erlandson seems almost embarrassed by what he took part in; and then there's Love. Every other interview subject sits nicely for the camera; Love slouches, kicks her leg up and chomps on cookies throughout, all of which barely distracts from her smeared eye makeup and lipstick.
Love's presence adds some needed spark. Ebersole pieces things together in a workmanlike way, but the tacky supertitles and camera effects often create a bit of an amateur feel. When the subject at hand is band turmoil and there's plenty of old footage, things move along nicely. When the story shifts to Schemel's post-Hole career and relies solely on long-winded interviews, it drags.
For '90s nostalgists, there are plenty of takeaways here, but most of them involve Cobain and Love, with Schemel once again in the background.
Contains profanity, talk of drug use and Courtney Love's posterior.