SIFF “Face The Music” preview: Hit So Hard

Seattle-area drumming icon for Hole (and before that Sybil and other bands) Patty Schemel intimately confesses what it was like to rock both grunge clubs and headline major festivals playing for Courtney Love. P. David Ebersole’s first feature-length documentary, Hit So Hard, features cameos by Love, and pals like Faith No More’s Roddy Bottom, punk-folk icon Phranc, and many others, issues about sexuality, addiction, and the darker sides of the music business are bracingly dealt with.

Festival Screenings:

Friday, May 27 at 9:00 PM at the Egyptian Theatre
Sunday, May 29 at 4:00 PM at the Neptune Theatre

A few years ago, at some point in yet another drug-hastened downward spiral, Patty Schemel passes by open church doors somewhere in Los Angeles and sees a drum kit sitting there. And the red-headed veteran punk from Marysville feels a mnemonic trigger that she once played those things for the band Hole, to a whole lot of people and acclaim, through most of the 90s. Through the deaths of her friend Kurt Cobain and Hole bass player Kristen Pfaff. Then a really bad scene happened with a producer while she was trying to keep her shit together and off booze and dope herself. So those early tracking sessions for the Celebrity Skin album ended up with her being replaced by some paunchy Italian guy from Whitesnake. And it was pretty much a fast blur between being interviewed on MTV and playing huge festivals to doing things to get high that had nothing to do with bashing the hell out of a set like the one she was looking at, as she was staggering through the lowest part of her damaged life.

It was past the point that Schemel was still able to call Love and have her “Western Union her” some money, which Courtney said she did even when she was let go from the band. I saw the Press Screening of Hit So Hard with noted rock scribe Gillian G. Gaar, who asked me, perhaps hypothetically (on a cosmically humongous level), how the hell Courtney Love “survived” after all the destruction she wallowed in. Which she actually seems to be doing here, many times, on camera, her eyes on fire and mouth stretching comically as she eats a cookie or lights a match or throws something across the room. But Courtney seems equally fucked up and amazingly clear; and I respond, “Maybe she’s just our generation’s Keith Richards.”

Schemel wasn’t so resilient, though considering she was smoking crack, shooting heroin, and guzzling rum through most of Hole’s output and live performances since she was snatched from beside her brother in celebrated local band Sybil (their B-side “Olympia” is still a favorite of mine) she was at least near indestructible for a tenaciously long run. Hit So Hard starts out dabbling in addiction-drama, which inevitably consumes a good amount of the running time, but there’s a ton of cool stuff in this movie as well that isn’t about death or intoxication. Punk-folk goddess Phranc makes a wonderful if all too brief appearance crediting grunge fashion to lesbians (maybe you have to be over 30 to get that joke), as Schemel played drums on her crucially awesome and wonderful riot grrrl-era Goofyfoot EP.

Hit So Hard starts in the early 80s, when Patty’s first band Them Milkbones played school dances and two of the members would be regularly beaten by the student body. Flash to her band The Primitives, and a mid-80s Seattle scene with DOA touring through and similar punk and college rock bands playing shows. By the time that Sybil were doing regular gigs in 1992, no one I knew was surprised that Patty became entrenched in the “creative, drug-flowing” Nirvana camp, and here finding out in Hit So Hard that Cobain really wanted to collaborate with her. (Love claims that the rest of Nirvana hated Kurt, which is why he stayed in his room, sitting on an amp, working out most of the songs himself, with Love, Shemel, and Francis Bean nearby.)

As Hole got the attraction of critics and fans with Pretty On The Inside, many credited Schemel and guitarist Eric Erlandson with a great deal of making the raw, zeitgeist-engorged group so arresting and listenable. Love is a perfect frontwoman, frenzied and grotesque and obliterating all boundaries, but so many sensationalistic stories about her have drawn attention away from the punk feminist power of that record and Live Through This -- the latter also being shadowed by the two demises previously mentioned, and which also seem to haunt Schemel throughout the film. (Also to Erlandson’s credit, in my opinion, is his uncomfortableness with Shemel’s eventual dismissal -- though I wish for Hole’s sake he could have prevented that from actually happening. Then again, would I stand up to Courtney Love?)

The interviews with Schemel’s friends and fans Alice De Buhr, an original member of the band Fanny (the first female hard rock group), Faith No More’s Roddy Bottom, among others, are well quoted and perfectly edited by filmmaker P. David Ebersole. This is his first documentary and second feature (following Straight Right), and is one of a handful of films in the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival to touch on themes of the minority voice in the music business. In this case, it’s about those who get left behind by others on a blitzkrieg for fame (such as Roadie, another SIFF flick I highly recommend), but also how female and queer influence on rock music in the past two decades has made everything so much more exciting. Even as a fan of Schemel’s locally made pummeling from back in the day, I wondered what the hell was going to fill two hour documentary about a grunge drummer. But at the very least people fascinated by the topics of sexuality and addiction will have a lot to dig into here; not to mention it being a perfectly good history of Hole, and a decent document of the absurdly self-torturing excesses of 90s alternative nation. (Punks don’t leave places like Marysville because they’re happy there, folks; though sometimes they do return and make things right for themselves.) And yes Courtney will have you shrieking with laughter several times.

Near when the end credits roll, more of the interviews with drummers like Gina Schock (the Go-Gos), Debbi Peterson (the Bangles), and shots of Maureen Tucker and others are shown, I wished more of music as a topic and such footage had been used in Hit So Hard. I would have loved to hear more about Shemel’s own musical influences, and a bit more on the records. I think it would have made the story of her going ape-shit on her demons more captivating. Even still, it’s one of my don’t miss selections for a rather sparsely-rocking otherwise SIFF year. (So probably an excellent accompaniment to Who Put The Bomp? Le Tigre On Tour, which I can’t wait to see on June 4 at the Neptune and June 7 at the Egyptian, 9:30 and 4:30 PM respectively. I just wish they’d been put back to back for one day’s screening though, that would have been awesome.)

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