Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Director: Brett Morgen
Stars: The ghost of Kurt Cobain (not really)
Year Released: 2015
The story of Kurt Cobain has been turned into a film before, whether it was Gus Van Sant’s Last Days or 2006’s Kurt Cobain About A Boy, only to fall short of truly reflecting their subject’s person, message and life. The same cannot be said for Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, co-executive produced by Cobain’s only child, Frances Bean Cobain. Over the course of eight years (part of that time allegedly related to legal issues between Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain) Morgen crafted 145 minutes of powerful, thoughtful and most importantly humanizing imagery and sonic waves.
Before I continue, I have to confess that I am a product of Nirvana; before the release of Nevermind (yeah, sorry, I grew up in the foothills of Northern California, Bleach was not even the remotest possibility) music gave me an ideal to live up to, from being a bad ass like Axl Rose to freaking people out trying to be like Jeff Hanneman. It really wasn’t until I heard Kurt Cobain’s voice putting sound to my thoughts that I even considered music to be something I could relate to on an experiential level. This wasn’t music meant to distract or entertain; I was hearing a stranger tell me about my own state of mind and doing it with such energy and command that I felt empowered. To say that Nirvana took my family troubles and sense of disenfranchisement and galvanized me would sound really awesome, but that didn’t happen. Maybe it did while Smells Like Teen Spirit played but it ended there, what Kurt Cobain did for me was make me feel not alone in my aloneness and showed me that music can be cathartic instead of just an image to focus on.
So that is what Kurt Cobain was for me as a teenager.
I also have to confess that I was one of those people that kinda thought Courtney Love either killed her husband or was involved in his being killed (murdered, not suicide). I don’t feel that way any more. After watching this film whatever flimsy justification I had for holding on to that “out” for Kurt Cobain is gone, I don’t believe she was the Eve to his Adam, the cause of his fall and ruin.
During the creation of this film Brett Morgen was given undreamt access to childhood video tapes of Kurt Cobain, countless pages of writing and pieces of art created by Kurt throughout his life. Morgen also found a box of 108 cassette tapes recorded by Kurt featuring music, recorded phone calls, recited pieces of writing found and more. Morgen took these personal and authentic pieces of his subject’s life and used them to piece together the life that was lived, removed from the filter of media and posterity. These moments of a life were turned into the narrative that at times flow with the impressions given by Kurt’s family and ex-girlfriend, at other times they contrast and conflict with the way people want the dead to be remembered. More than twenty years after the day Kurt Cobain took his own life the idea of who he was is maybe more real to some than the person that actually was.
Paintings and doodles of Kurt Cobain’s fill the gaps in the story, eerily giving weight to the tone and theme of his life. The progression of his childhood documented by his own hands, first in crayon then in pen and finally with a pick on guitar strings. There is no mistaking Kurt Cobain’s need to be understood, his desire for someone out there to tell him that he is not alone. His heart forever pouring out through his art, ridicule being the greatest fear possible. The young blonde boy holding a piece of paper marked with the words “It’s my 3rd birthday” never grew up, he got bigger and he learned to hide, but he never stopped being a force of happiness and a beacon inviting love.
The film is about Kurt, it isn’t about Nirvana. We see the band and we hear their music, but they are on the peripheral and less an influence on their front man than he was on them. Personally, I do not mourn the absence of David Grohl’s voice. The one time he does speak to the camera that I can recall he says that he is “the drummer and sometimes he sings”, even that was too much. The purpose of Nirvana not being the focus was not to minimize their import, I feel, I don’t think it is possible to consider Kurt Cobain without Nirvana. Instead what Morgen does is make sure the viewer keeps their eyes on Kurt because we know how this story is going to end, there is no surprise twist before the credits. We have to make sure Kurt Cobain is fully accountable for his actions, there is no attempt at misdirection, the camera keeps us aware of any slight-of-hand.
Damn, this review has gotten long. Feel free to stop here and we can just say I highly recommend it, both as a film about Kurt Cobain and as an example of an extremely well done biographical documentary. Or you can keep reading.
At no point in this film Kurt Cobain ever given a saintly glow and absolved of all wrong doing. We get a glimpse of a young man too high to know what exactly is going on, we see a father look at his infant daughter as if she were the Sun and his soul was stuck in her gravity. There is a scene where Kurt is obviously so high that he cannot stay awake as he holds his daughter up so that she can get her haircut. I sat watching, body tense, waiting for the moment that a blade cut into her head because she fell out of his hands. Thankfully that moment never came, no thanks it seems to anyone near the two. This is probably one of the most frustrating moments in the film.
There is so much more to say about the movie, moments that I feel are worth mentioning but maybe only because they resonate with me. Though, given the masses of people that still mourn the loss of a man that will forever be their tragic hero, I am pretty sure my wanting to hold on to this moment is not something I am experiencing alone.
One thing in closing though; hearing the voice of a young, blonde boy say “I’m Kurt Cobain” was (and remains) a surreal experience more than 20 years after that sweet, visceral voice forever went silent.