Hit So Hard follows ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel’s journey from success to shambles to sobriety.
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Surviving two bereavements, three world tours, a drug addiction and redundancy at the hands of Courtney Love is no easy feat. But, as Patty Schemel’s new film shows, it can be done. Today marks the release of the documentary Hit So Hard, a mosaic of personal footage of Schemel’s lost years playing the drums for 90s grunge act Hole. The film charts her golden days as a fierce and revered drummer and her subsequent decline into heroin addiction.
A cuckoo in the nest, Schemel was raised in a lumberjack town in Washington but promptly left for Seattle in pursuit of the burgeoning grunge and Riot Grrrl scene. After dabbling in punk-rock with her brother Larry, it was her stint in Doll Squad that earned her a fan and friend in Kurt Cobain. His girlfriend Courtney was looking for a new drummer and, as they say, the rest is history…
The film is frank; Schemel shares intimate clips of Kurt, Courtney and newborn Frances as well as glimpses of her in the grips of her brutal habit. One particularly ominous clip shows Courtney cuddling Frances and begging Kurt, “don’t ever leave your girls.” In the extensive interviews, Schemel talks of her sense of betrayal at being replaced by a ghost-drummer on the 1998 album Celebrity Skin and the spiral of self-sabotage that episode provoked. She ends up bankrupt and homeless before cleaning up for good.
Yet, the film is more than a cautionary tale. It probes into the politics and social norms that spawned the grunge movement; the backlash to a conservative, almost intolerant America. It was a time when Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign had captivated the public and homophobic/anti-abortion rhetoric was commonplace. As a lesbian, Schemel found acceptance in the Seattle music scene, something the film duly emphasises.
There are some great cameos from Courtney Love, Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf der Maur as well as Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon and Debbi Peterson from The Bangles.
Patty Schemel spoke to i-D before the London screening of the film…
How did the film come about? I had over 40 hours worth of footage on Hi-8 analogue tapes. The film disintegrates, so it had to be preserved. I reached out to the director David and we started dubbing. In that process he started to get interested in what he was seeing and said this would be a great story.
Was he familiar with the grunge scene? He didn’t really know much about 90s grunge music in Seattle. He had no preconceived ideas about any of the people in the film or any of the bands. He came at it with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
Why do you think that era of music resonated with so many people, even to this day? It was really honest music with really honest lyrics. It said a lot about not being part of the norm; along the lines of what punk rock does and did. It was anti-establishment and it was really perfect for us at the time because it was about being yourself. It embraced all kinds of people. It embraced gay people and even girls in bands.
What did it feel like to rehash those memories? I basically spent the summer of 2007 going through that footage and each day would bring different things that I hadn’t remembered. Some days were definitely heavier than others.
Was it cathartic? Completing the film was cathartic. I hadn’t spoken to Eric (Erlandson) for a while. Hearing him talk about some of the things that happened was really healing. Making art out of the difficult stuff was one of my goals.
In one clip you stare into the camera and Melissa asks, “are you documenting your misery?” Did you use the camera as a confidante? Yes there was that. I’m not saying I wasn’t grateful to be part of a successful band, tour and have music as my way of making money. But, there were moments in there that were very difficult and a lot of it had to do with drugs and alcohol. One of those moments you see in the film is capturing an instance when the drugs stopped working. I was just at a loss.
Was much of the footage was taken when you were high? Yes and that was difficult to see.
What was your rock-bottom? I spent every single minute of every single day trying to get high and stay high. One day the drugs stopped working and I thought, “I gotta get out.” They say it takes what it takes.
Was losing Kurt and Kristen Pfaff (former Hole bassist) a wake-up call? In a way it was an alert but it didn’t stop me. It just created more sadness which gave me more reason to drown in drugs.
Was it inappropriate for Hole to go on tour after two bereavements? We had this record and we asked ourselves the question, “do we want to tour?” It was basically about plunging ourselves into the music and not looking back. But if you deny those feelings, they come up eventually.
When did it come out? For Courtney, it came out a lot in live shows. There would be moments when she would start playing a song that they played together or she’d want to cover one of his songs or say his name quietly to herself. The anniversary of the first year of his death, we were on tour and we all knew what day it was but nobody said anything to each other.
What was Kurt like? I’d known Kurt before I knew Courtney as our bands played together around Seattle. We had always bonded over music and home. I lived with them for a while. It was a great time for creativity, for the three of us.
What do you think is the real message of the film? For me, it’s about the journey. Choosing an instrument that is not one that girls play and then being successful, coming out as a lesbian and also being an alcoholic and drug addict. Some great musicians that were peers died at that time but I survived. Either you die, go crazy or your end up in an institution. I got to a point where I lost everything and had to reinvent myself. It was a document of that story; the near death of me. It sounds dramatic but I think I made it out… barely.
HIT SO HARD is out on DVD now with UK exclusive extra features, and can be purchased here.