I was in high school in the early '90s just as alternative, grunge, and gangster rap were hitting, a time I feel is one of the most exciting and influential periods of music since the late '60s. One of my favorite bands was Nirvana, who I feel proud and lucky to have seen live twice, which made it that much more devastating when Nirvana's singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain killed himself in April of 1994. Another band that I greatly admired at the time was Hole, the band fronted by Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, who had one of the best screams in all of rock. Hole also featured the best female drummer I'd ever seen in Patty Schemel, and the documentary Hit So Hard tells Schemel's story, using nearly 40 hours of home videos Schemel shot herself, which not only provides an insider's look into the alternative explosion and two of its most important figures in Love and Cobain, but also an intimate, sometimes heart-wrenching portrait of Schemel as a drummer, a lesbian, an addict, a rock star, and ultimately a survivor. Watch the trailer for Hit So Hard below.
Hit So Hard starts with Schemel's close friendship with Cobain and Love, evidenced by the amazingly intimate videos Schemel shot of them with their new baby, showing Cobain to be much sillier and more fun than the media portrayal of him as the tortured voice of an apathetic generation. For grunge and Nirvana fans, this never-before-seen footage of Cobain at home, as well as video of Love and Cobain working out an unreleased song called "Stinking of You," will feel like getting your hands on a rare demo.
This makes it all the more shattering as Schemel recounts Cobain's suicide just four days before the release of Hole's breakout album (and the first with Schemel on drums), Live Through This, and the effect his death had on the tight-knit Seattle music community. Cobain's death was followed just two months later by the fatal overdose of Hole's bassist, Kristen Pfaff, highlighting the darkness that was always at the heart of the Seattle scene as well as the instability that has always dogged Hole.
The film then jumps back to explore Schemel's teenage years in Marysville, Washington, where she went through the difficult experience of coming out of the closet in a small town, eventually finding salvation with other outsiders in the punk scene, where she took up the drums partially as an act of defiance since so few women played them. The film also details the life of a rock drummer, playing in various bands, living on the road, the dysfunctional family dynamic of being in a band, and, as the timekeeper, being responsible for anchoring the songs and corralling a band's wilder elements.
While Hit So Hard often feels scattered and a bit like an ambitious student project, the main through line is Schemel's struggles with addiction, which started as a child when she had her first drink at 13. Despite numerous trips to rehab, drug and alcohol addiction followed her as a bored teenager practicing in basements, to the customary pre-and post-show partying, to increasingly desperate drinking and drug use in hotel rooms around the world, to eventually becoming a homeless crack addict on the streets of Los Angeles.
Hit So Hard uses extensive interviews with Schemel, her mother and brother, her Hole bandmates Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf der Mar, friends, and Schemel's musician peers. But Love comes across the worst by far, not just for her makeup that makes her look like a hungover circus clown, but from her selfish perspective that Hole is solely her band, her time-wasting and self-aggrandizing antics on and off the stage, and her failure to acknowledge or even recognize the effects her actions had on her bandmates, including the decision that sent Schemel into her deepest and most dangerous period of addiction.
But Hit So Hard is obviously Schemel's story, and despite the film's labored attempts to create a coherent structure, Schemel's unwavering openness and honesty about her addictions -- which are never self-pitying -- is utterly compelling, as is her take on being a woman, a lesbian, and a drummer in a volatile, world-famous band at the forefront of a cresting movement. Fans of rock, drummers, women in rock, Hole, and the grunge/alternative wave of the early/mid '90s will definitely want to check out Hit So Hard. But as a film that is ultimately about overcoming obstacles and surviving the battles with your demons, there's plenty of darkness and inspiration for everyone.