Whenever a lead singer's star presence, whether through force of vision or excess of vanity, eclipses the collective unit of a rock band, the other members become — to quote the great Cameron Crowe rock odyssey Almost Famous — "the out-of-focus guys."
The telephoto lenses of photographers and music video directors have a way of making this hierarchy painfully apparent, and the alternative rock movement that swelled up around Nirvana was rife with cults of personality. Just as Nirvana was Kurt Cobain and the out-of-focus guys, Billy Corgan was Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam was Eddie Vedder, and Bush was Gavin Rossdale. The other members were never on the same focal plane.
And there's no question that drummer Patty Schemel was one of the out-of-focus guys in Hole, a four-piece entirely eclipsed by Courtney Love, the mesmerizing train wreck at its center.
In Hit So Hard, a misshapen documentary about Schemel's struggles with alcohol and heroin addiction, there's old concert footage of her pounding away as Love provokes the crowd, knocks over equipment and prowls madly around the stage. Her job was to keep time for chaos, all while trying not to let the chaos consume her.
For the purpose of this documentary, Schemel's presence proves to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she was at the epicenter of the grunge scene, witnessing Kurt and Courtney, the era's volatile first couple, in their most intimate and tragic moments.
On the other, the details of Schemel's own story tend to shrink by comparison, made to seem more like a garden-variety tale of addiction and redemption in comparison with the epic flameout of Cobain's life or ongoing calamity of Love's. Why else would director P. David Ebersole include interview footage of Sarah Vowell, the author and social commentator, describing where she was the day Cobain committed suicide? What does that have to do with his ostensible subject?
Now six years sober, Schemel proves to be an open and plainspoken woman with a hard-won perspective on taking the tough path, from growing up lesbian in the tiny town of Marysville, Wash., to being part of a creative inner circle that was decimated by heroin abuse. Ebersole moves through her story haphazardly, looping back and forth in time, mixing talking-head interviews with never-before-seen footage from Schemel's video journal. It has the dramatic arc of a typical VH-1 Behind the Music episode, but unfolds at twice the length.
Recruited to join Hole in 1992, Schemel was part of an extremely volatile time for Cobain and Love, whose creative and personal lives were both flowering and dangling off the precipice. They'd just welcomed their daughter, Frances Bean, into the world, and Schemel's footage includes charming scenes of Cobain clowning around with the baby and the two singing made-up songs to her. While Cobain was off in a closet, composing songs for what would be the last Nirvana album, In Utero, Love and her band were working on Live Through This, a dark and eerily prescient record that was released a mere four days after Cobain shot himself.
Schemel recalls the surreal charade of touring behind Live Through This mere weeks after Cobain's death in 1994 — the idea was "to turn poison into medicine" — and Hole's bassist, Kristen Pfaff, dying of a heroin overdose just two months later. If anything, Schemel was a more robust drug user than Pfaff, but the impact of these tragedies enforced her addiction as much as it discouraged it.
To his credit, Ebersole assembles all the surviving members of Hole, including Love, who remembers Schemel with affection and good humor, even though she booted her out of the band during the recording of its long-delayed follow-up, 1998's Celebrity Skin. If anything, the sections about Schemel's marginalization — and eventual dismissal — during the Celebrity Skin sessions are more riveting than the stories of Hole in its world-beating prime. Suddenly, the raw punk aesthetic that Schemel brought to Hole was overwhelmed by Love's commercial ambitions, and she went from out of focus to unceremoniously dumped.
Ebersole piles on the testimonials, not just from Schemel's former bandmates and immediate family, but also from a too-wide net of fellow travelers, including the drummers for The Go-Gos and The Bangles. There's a better documentary to be carved out of Hit So Hard, but not necessarily a great one, because the gossip and drug-fueled capers offered up by Love are simply more compelling than the tremulous course of Schemel's life. Here, as then, Schemel plays backup to history.