“Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel,” P. David Ebersole’s documentary about the life of Patty Schemel, the drummer of Courtney Love’s seminal rock band Hole, opens in New York today after playing at festivals worldwide, including SXSW and Sheffield Doc/Fest. The film expands to Los Angeles on April 20.
To mark the occasion, Indiewire asked Ebersole and producing partner Todd Hughes to share with us their top ten music documentaries of all time.
Check out their picks below:
“The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981 Dir: Penelope Spheris)
The ultimate DIY punk rock documentary. From the stark black-and-white interviews with teenage punkers against a bare light bulb to the gritty and hilarious “at home” interviews with superstars of the then exploding Los Angeles music scene (like Exene of X and Darby Crash of The Germs), Penelope Spheris’ effortless filmmaking wove together a vivid portrait of a true blank generation. Lines like “Eat my fuck” and “New wave is a figment of some lame cunt’s imagination” have become classic. Our interviewee Phranc makes her first onscreen appearance here, as a member of Catholic Discipline.
“Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventure in Plastic” (2001 Dir: Lisa Udelson)
A touching portrait of Phranc, the original Jewish lesbian folk singer, who rose to fame in the early ’80s but found a new career in the ’90s using her singing and performing talents to become one of the nation’s top Tupperware salesladies. Even after performing her original song “Tupperware Lady” on the Donny and Marie Show, director Udelson deftly captures Phranc’s ultimate sadness as her butch persona is shunned at a massive Tupperware convention.
“Woodstock” (1970 Dir: Michael Wadleigh)
The classic concert film featuring some of the greatest musicians of all time was the ultimate backstage pass, depicting everything from rock-star drug use to naked hippies frolicking in the mud. Young Martin Scorsese was one of the film’s seven editors. The gorgeous use of split screen was a major influence on “Hit So Hard” (and features our interviewee Dallas Taylor who was the drummer of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).
“New York Doll” (2005 Dir: Greg Whitely)
We love this doc because it was such an unusual and interesting rock portrait of an unsung member of a seminal band that had never been told, let alone suspected. Arthur “Killer” Kane went from being in the New York Dolls to converting to Mormonism and punching a clock. The filmmaker catches him just as he gets one last taste of rock stardom (thanks to Morrissey) before he dies! Wow.
“Abba: The Movie” (1977 Dir: Lasse Hallström)
We’ll admit it. This is a weird one. Abba, at the height of their fame, gets followed on a concert tour of Australia by a crazed reporter on a quest to interview the elusive quartet. Although never managing to interview the band, the film well documents the madness of the fan frenzy and the crass commercial tie-ins connected with a phenomenon. A prototype of the mockumentary to come.
“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” (2007 Dirs: Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden)
Anita O’Day has one of the most amazing, unusual and undiscovered stories in music history. This film posthumously brings the ups and downs of one of the world’s great jazz singer stylists to life through a brilliant tapestry of archival footage and interviews. Her frank love affair with heroin is riveting.
“Nico Icon” (1995 Dir: Susanne Ofteringer)
They had us at Nico. You know a music documentary is successful when you leave the theater and go straight to the record store to buy the artists’ oeuvre. The film is like a time-lapse photography camera that chronicles the birth of an exquisite beauty as she blooms and then whithers and dissipates into the ether, all to the throbbing soundtrack of The Velvet Underground. What’s not to love?
“Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” (1993 Dir: Steven M. Martin)
The filmmaking is as hypnotic as the exotic instrument and the mad genius inventor it depicts. A fascinating and perfectly executed survey of the history of the electronic instrument and its esoteric significance in modern music. It’s hard not to emerge from the film and not be a fan of Clara Rockmore, the world’s most accomplished Thereminist.
“Nomi Song” (2004 Dir: Andrew Horn)
Another incredible rock story that had never been told but is that is outstanding in its drama, music, characters and ultimately its place in the history of modern art. Intimate interviews and colorful archival footage take us to the margins between high and low art.
“This is Elvis” (1981 Dir: Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo)
We had forgotten about this film until a recent visit with Patty Schemel to The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cincinnati where it screens on a loop – all day long! We both remember seeing this in the theater when it came out. This really is the one that has it all: archival footage of the King, interviews with his disciples, and reenactments (featuring four actors playing Elvis at different ages) long before the E! True Hollywood Story made it commonplace.
Other honorable mentions:
“Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” (1953) – cartoon documentary at its best!
“Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2008) – hair bands! character-driven doc making at its best!
“Wigstock: The Movie” (1995) – hair bands of a different kind! politics and fun at the same time!
“The US Vs. John Lennon” (2006) – politics and hippie hair! You walk out thinking: “that Yoko was a genius!”
“Justin Beiber: Never Say Never” (2011) – No politics. All about the 3D hair. You walk out thinking: “that Beiber kid is talented!”
“That’s Entertainment!” (1974) – oh yes it is!
“Let’s Get Lost” (1988) – pure beauty…the movie too, not just Chet Baker.
“Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway” (2008) – totally different kind of music doc chronicling four legendary Broadway shows from their inceptions to the ultimate success or death.
“Bob and the Monster” (2011) – our favorite music doc that played on our fest circuit and an interesting companion piece to “Hit So Hard.”