Patty Schemel is best remembered as the drummer of the alternative rock group Hole, fronted by erstwhile alt-queen rocker, now-notorious loudmouth Courtney Love. For top level context, Schemel laid the thunderous beat on both of Hole’s most popular and well-known records, including 1994’s Live Through This which was released just four days after frontwoman Courtney Love's husband, Kurt Cobain, was found dead in their home. This is all well-documented. What only the most hardcore of rock aficionados will remember was that Schemel’s drum parts on 1997’s follow-up record Celebrity Skin were replaced by a session drummer at the behest of producer Michael Beinhorn (knob-twiddler for records like Soundgarden's Superunknown, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk and Grave Dancers Union by Soul Asylum).
What isn’t well documented in the career and life of Hole and Schemel — and this is where “Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel” starts to illuminate — is that Schemel was, like several others members in the band, a struggling drug addict and substance abuser. And while clean and sober by the time Celebrity Skin began recording, the “betrayal” of having her parts re-recorded by a outside session drummer (a male rock drummer that Beinhorn chose) destroyed Schemel’s ego and she relapsed with a fierce intensity that eventually saw her living on the streets as a crack addict.
Directed by P. David Ebersole (tellingly a friend of Schemel’s), while 'Hit So Hard' can be an engaging documentary, its biggest, fatal flaws are the fact the film seems to suffer from its own identity crisis. As the title indicates, the film is ostensibly about the life and near death story of Patty Schemel, but 'Hit So Hard' also seems enamored by the shining, sparkly subjects of Kurt Cobain and the history of Hole (which is troublingly apparent in the film’s official synopsis which focuses more on Nirvana and Cobain as selling points then it does on Schemel). And then the documentary seems to sincerely want to delve into an understanding of who this drummer is, chronicling Schemel’s struggles with her sexuality before she came out of the closet in a 1995 Rolling Stone article and attempting to understand what drew her to her afflictions.
But the uneven documentary can’t have it both ways and spends an inordinate amount of time on never-before-seen footage of Cobain, Love and their daughter Francis Bean Cobain frolicking at homes during the halcyon days. This would be well and good in say, a Francis Bean Cobain documentary, but in a Patty Schemel one, this rather intimate footage does feel rather exploitative, even if the drummer did live with the Cobains and their daughter for a few months and was relatively close to Cobain. Then again, part of Schemel's pains are due to the one-two punch of friends dying of heroin-related causes, Cobain, and then six weeks later, departed Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff. Still, if the documentary triest to make the connection that Cobain's death hurtled her deeper into heroin addiction, it's a tenuous one at best and this Cobain family footage still rings a little odd (and curiously missing if you are going to make this association is the fact that Schemel decided to opt-out of Cobain's infamous drug intervention because she thought that would have been hypocritical).
Part of the issue no doubt is the manner in which the documentary was made. A veteran director and producer of cable television (“Wicked Wicked Games,” “Desire”) Ebersole was given a box of 40 hours of never-before-seen footage of when Schemel was on tour with Hole in the '90s with the initial hopes of preserving the soon-to-be obsolete Hi-8 footage. These conversations and subsequent viewings of the footage lead Ebersole to believe he had a film on his hand.
But instead of making the unseen Hole tour diaries documentary, Ebersole decided to use the footage to tell Schemel’s rather compelling and harrowing personal story, which is exactly what any smart director would have done. Unfortunately, the filmmaker gets sidetracked and distracted with her tale when Nirvana, Cobain, Love or bits of rock history become more fascinating. And then the documentary gets back on message and then vacillates like that back and forth leaving for an experience that is often unsatisfying and uneven.
And when the film does decide to fully go for broke on Schemel’s story, it practically veers from near-dead on the street hobo, to full-on celebration of her recovery with little in between. If there’s redemption to be found in this recovery, 'Hit So Hard' wants to fast-forward straight to it and mostly glosses over how she recovered (and pehaps this is because it has nothing to do with the shiny and sparkly history of Hole).
And don’t get it twisted, it’s fantastic that Patty Schemel has gotten her life back together and yes, this is something her friends and family should celebrate. The problem is when all is said and done, 'Hit So Hard' either wants to sell itself as an all-access backstage pass to the music “that shaped a generation” or a documentary made by a friend who aims to demonstrate and celebrate Schemel’s amazing recovery rather than delve into any kind of unflinching and raw portrait of addiction or darkness. Featuring Hole members Courtney Love, Melissa Auf der Maur, Eric Erlandson and rock friends and peers like Roddy Bottum of Faith No More (who takes Beinhorn’s producer decisions to task with decided sharpness), Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Gina Schock of The Go-Go's, Debbi Peterson of The Bangles and Larry Schemel (Patty’s brother) of Midnight Movies, 'Hit So Hard' does seem to have the best of intentions at hand. Endorsed by Schemel and most of Hole (its premiere reunitined the classic Hole line-up in the same room for the first time in thirteen years) 'Hit So Hard' is an interesting look at cliches like “the dangers of overnight success, and “the cost of addiction,” but rarely does it say anything overly insightful about either subject. Instead, the documentary ultimately informs the viewer that, in case you were wondering what happened to her, Patty Schemel is doing perfectly well today. And that’s wonderful as Schemel seems like a person who deserves a second chance. But I’m not sure this mildly engaging, but unbalanced documentary does. [C+]