Hit So Hard offers glimpses of the ragged heyday of grunge that are so compelling, it’s a shame the film didn’t stay with them instead of continuing along a standard story of a rock ’n’ roll downfall by way of drug addiction followed by a slow recovery. Patty Schemel, the documentary’s subject, was Hole’s drummer from 1992 to 1998, through the Live Through This years and tour as well as Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It was a darkly exhilarating time in which everyone seemed to be on heroin—some, like Courtney Love, could (sort of) handle it, and others, like Schemel and the band’s bassist, Kristen Pfaff, who died of an overdose a few months after Cobain’s death, couldn’t.
Schemel is a genial subject, one of few female drummers in the industry, a redheaded goofball who came from a small Washington town where it wasn’t easy to grow up gay. Her path takes her from a member of one of the alternative music era’s most influential bands to a crack addict living on the street, but it’s one of the unfortunate facts of P. David Ebersole’s documentary that she seems invisible whenever Love or Cobain is on the screen. Schemel was friends with the latter, and the film’s most memorable sequences involve home-movie footage of the Nirvana frontman playing with baby Francis Bean. “You’re so goddamn old, you’re so goddamn unhip,” he pretends she’s telling him.
But Love, whether in older footage or in her current interview (in which she wears makeup reminiscent of Katherine Helmond’s in Brazil) also burns much brighter than the film’s focus; she’s a raucous, disastrous, undeniable star.
“I was completely high on dope at the time, I don’t remember any of it,” she scoffs when asked about first hiring Schemel. Other interviewees include former bandmates Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf Der Mar, other fellow musicians, and even Sarah Vowell. They make the inadvertent case that Schemel is most interesting for who she hung out with, before she was ousted from the band during the recording of Celebrity Skin. “I get very annoyed when they put the camera on the singer or the guitar player,” her mother says, but the film leaves viewers thinking that’s really the only thing they can do—not because Schemel hasn’t had a major journey, but because in this case those other figures loom so much larger, it’s hard to avoid zooming in on them.