Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2011 1:31 pm 
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A rock musician felled by drugs who recovered

The Seattle grunge look came from the style of butch lesbians. That's one of the nuggets we get from P. David Ebersole's rocumentary Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death Story of Drummer Patty Schemel. Schemel was the drummer for Courtney Love's group Hole from 1992 until 1998, replacing the original drummer, Caroline, Rue but then herself had to be replaced. Love declares that for her Patty will always be Hole's drummer. But in fact the feisty, good-humored but sensitive lesbian drummer was downed by drugs, left the band over a recording issue, and for a while was living on the streets of LA addicted to crack. Today Patty Schemel has been clean and sober for six years, is married to a woman and raises a child with her, and has her own dog day-care center, while giving serious drum instruction to young girls. Schemel isn't one of the rock giants people go out to see movies about. But Ebersole and Schemel do tell a hopeful story -- about someone who did not die of an overdose or some other kind of rock suicide but has lived to tell the tale with spirit and a sense of humor. And this movie incidentally takes us back to some intimate moments in the world of Seattle rock's most celebrated casualty, Kurt Cobain.

Patty shared an apartment in LA with Cobain and Courtney Love shortly after the birth of their baby daughter, Frances, and not long before Cobain's suicide. She has provided a wealth of video footage of Cobain, Love, and touring with Hole. The unpublished Kurt Cobain footage is the most newsworthy part of the film. It was an effort to preserve that footage and Schemel's show of skill as a raconteur while film was being re-recorded that decided Ebersole to make a movie all about the drummer and her context. Over a dozen major talking heads contribute to the portrait besides Patty Schemel herself, but most important among these are Patty's mother, Terry; her brother, Larry; Courtney Love, the leader of Hole; Melissa auf der Maur, who was bassist for Hole for five years; and Hole's co-founder, Eric Erlandson.

Schemel grew up in Marysville, a farm town outside of Seattle. At 15 she formed her first band. She worked her way up through high school-era bands, playing with her brother Larry. Many picturesque fliers for her early aggregations are displayed onscreen. Eventually she entered into the world of grunge royalty, when she was considered to replace the departed drummer of Nirvana and became a close friend of Curt Cobain. She was always drinking, and drugs of all kinds, notably heroin, were rife on the Seattle scene. The Pacific Northwest was a pretty druggy place, and the Nineties were a time of "heroin chic." Patty realized that neither heroin nor alcohol gibe with keeping a hard beat. It was her job to provide her band's structure, its backbone. She cleaned up her act and stopped performing high. It was Courtney Love whose wild onstage behavior constantly caused disruption at concerts. But a recording session with producer Michael Beinhorn proved Patty's downfall. Beinhorn was known for undermining and replacing drummers for his dates. He set things up so that Patty failed, and after a couple weeks of exhausting solo recording sessions, he pushed her out and brought in a man with an Italian name who duplicated all her performances. She felt so humiliated by this experience that she went back to drugs and alcohol with a vengeance and withdrew from the band and from everybody. Eventually she wound up living with a shopping cart on the corner of Temple and Alvarado streets in LA. Patty's account of her descent into hell is vivid and good humored.

The film focuses on the idea of women drummers and on Schemel's sexual orientation, and also on her drug problems and subsequent clean life. It doesn't recount her musical career since she left Hole. You can find more about those details in a discussion of the film in the blog Jestherent.

Ebersole has said he used the Maysles brothers as his model in working with a bare minimum team so the interviews would be more relaxed. Hit So Hard is a well-made documentary that tells its story forcefully and clearly, but it will not interest everybody. Likely to be entertained are fans of Seattle rock, Cobain, Hole, Courtney Love, and anyone interested in a musician who overcame the ravages of drugs, or in female drummers. This is also peripherally the portrait of an American generation that grew up from Reagan to Bush I and a dark time when within two months of 1994 Kurt Cobain committed suicide and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose of heroin. The film significance of the band and the generation is well discussed in Cindy Widener's piece about the film for The Austin Chronicle in connection with its SXSF screenings.

Seen and reviewed as part of New Directors/New Films, presented from March 23-April 4, 2011 by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York. The film was shown March 15 and 18 at the SXSF festival, Austin, Texas.

ND/NF screening times:

2011-03-28 | 6:00 PM | MoMA
2011-03-30 | 9:00 PM | FSLC

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