This is not a movie about Nirvana, rather, this movie embodies Kurt. A Universal/HBO co-production, Cobain: Montage of Heck, is the first officially authorized documentary to focus on the life of Kurt Cobain, something his estate (infamously controlled by Courtney Love) has been wary of granting, given the shape of 1998’s controversial and somewhat defamatory Kurt and Courtney, directed by Nick Broomfield. For the most part it’s a solid, if uneven documentary that never outstays its welcome but has a tendency to drag in its later moments. In saying that, Montage of Heck is one of the best documentaries we’ve seen about a public figure in an arts industry and is (probably) the most well-rounded picture we’ll get of Kurt Cobain, a humble figure afflicted with depression and a serious drug dependency.
The film opens on Nirvana’s Reading festival performance before cutting to an array of footage depicting a post-war United States, moving images that establish a sense of time and place for a setting that defined Cobain’s youth. Through interviews with his parents, sister, and step-mother we hear about his ADHD, his obsession with Sesame Street, his inability to handle embarrassment and being shamed by his (admittedly pretty terrible) father. Footage of an infant Kurt is intercut with childhood drawings of Kermit the Frog and H.R. Pufnstuf and underscored by the Rockbye Baby rendition of ‘All Apologies’. Later, Morgen takes existing Nirvana tracks and turns them into film score by looping discrete segments – this is a constant throughout the feature and begins with the acoustic version of ‘Something in the Way’. We see a montage of home video footage and animated childhood/adolescent drawings – it’s a fun and effective faux-tackling of the totality – and then, all of a sudden, we are provided a counterpoint to this portrayal of Kurt’s early life in the form of a home recording made by Kurt himself. Cobain’s own story of his adolescence – rebellion/stonerism/petty-theft/embarrasment/an embodiment of Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield – is presented in fantastic animated form by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing. From here we move to an interview between Cobain and Buzzo from The Melvins, before being throttled into a sort of pastiche of a fan-made Over the Edge music video underscored by ‘School’ off Nirvana’s first album, Bleach. This opening quarter is fantastic, emblematic of some of the best music documentary film-making out there – a companion-piece to Lance Bang’s Breadcrumb Trail, which focused on contrasting the mythology with the reality of the production of Slint’s second album, Spiderland. Montage of Heck, too, does away with the mythology of Nirvana and skilfully places focus squarely on the reality of the man.
Unfortunately, although it’s all interesting, the latter three-quarters of the film fail to live up to the genius of its opening 30 minutes or so. Never again do we see Morgen’s skillful establishment of time and place through (seemingly) random montage like we do in the film’s opening moments, nor do we get a balanced picture of Kurt’s life from those around him that is contrasted with his own words. We do still get the excellent repurposing of Nirvana’s output as film score (whether it be through the looping of song intros and licks, or the use of covers like those performed for the Rockabye Baby series), but some of the magic is lost when we burn through a number of early cuts and demos of tracks in such a short period of time – however thankfully many are present in the early moments of the film. What the film does do extremely well is remove focus from his bands; no attempt is made to directly grapple with Nirvana’s first album Bleach or Cobain’s prior projects, and Nevermind is only given about 10 minutes of casual lip service. We see a number of major events in the band’s career but all that is discussed is their effect on Kurt, rather than the events themselves. This constant, like the animation of Cobain’s own drawings, is extremely impressive.
Despite my general musical elitism, I have an interesting relationship with Cobain’s output – Nirvana is one of the few bands that I think have never released a bad song and, thanks to some cool older cousins and uncles, I grew up listening to Bleach, In Utero, and Nevermind. Old issues of Rolling Stone were never far away, and I was immersed in the mythology of Nirvana (through old interviews and post-suicide think-pieces) from a young, predominantly pre-internet age. Until recently, and despite a love of Hole’s Live Through This, I was on board the ‘this is all Courtney Love’s fault’ hate train and having seen this film my current views are now cemented; Montage of Heck tells a fascinating side-story of an age in which rampant misogyny in print media was generally accepted, with no Tumblr or Twitter to call out disingenuous and, even, flat out misogynist statements. It is in this environment that a wave of Courtney Love defamation flourished (occasionally even perpetrated by ex-band mate Dave Grohl who is absent from the final cut of this film).1 In this sense, Montage of Heck debunks the prevailing myth that has defined Nirvana lore since the death of Cobain. A particularly telling sequence shows Love and Cobain strung out in the bathroom of their Los Angeles apartment – Courtney Love proceeds to air her fears to an unidentified cameraman: in the future she will be America’s most hated woman, the person who unfairly would bear the blame for tearing apart America’s largest rock band.2 It seems in that era, with no-one to defend her in the mainstream media, her fears were not unfounded.
It’s easy to see why Grohl had formed such a negative opinion of Love,3 as she is, in a way, Nirvana’s Yoko Ono – in one moment we see Cobain, at the height of his drug use, instruct the crowd at Reading to chant along with him “we love you Courtney”; in this moment, for Cobain, Love is now larger and more important than the band. However, the wave of post-death defamation that has come along with Cobain’s suicide seems unfounded and even childish; the documentary seems to argue that Cobain’s allegiance was never to Nirvana, but the punk-rock lifestyle itself (particular in its omission of the band’s early years). We are shown multiple interviews with Nirvana in which they dodge questions and seem generally disinterested in the process, a very hardcore/punk-rock response to mainstream success. That’s not to say that Nirvana were not important to Cobain; at the point at which they cross over into mainstream success with Nevermind, Cobain ceases to exist, with all focus on the man in the documentary mediated through the band itself – however as Love enters the picture, Cobain’s life becomes intrinsically tied with hers and Morgen presents us with a narrative through which Kurt becomes Courtney. It is interesting that the Courtney becomes humanized through their decision to hermit as Lennon and Ono had before them, seeking to shoot up all day,4 for it is at this moment that Courtney found herself portrayed as a sort of succubus and, later, an unfit mother in mainstream media. Whether this is a product of thoughtful documentary making or the product of the estate’s creative input is up for debate but it is a testament to Morgen that these moments felt extremely truthful to a viewer and fan of the band who had previously experienced a level of disdain towards Love. Later, as Love discovers she is pregnant, and she cleans up for Frances, Cobain’s life is no longer mediated through Love and instead becomes intrinsically tied to that of his daughter.5
What caused Cobain’s suicide? We will never know. In fact, the documentary makes no attempt to deal with this aspect of his life, concluding a month before the incident. We are subconsciously fed a hypothesis that Kurt’s pride, and fear of humiliation fed his suicidal tendencies (which are alluded to at multiple points in the film), but a conclusive answer is not the objective of this project. What we get is a multifaceted, complex portrait of the man who changed the face of modern rock music forever, a project that, although conforming to a linear timeline, is not interested in adhering to traditional documentary structure – a true montage of information exploring Cobain’s life. Although, on a whole, it isn’t as strong as the first 30 minutes promised, it is a great exercise in modern documentary film-making and a must see for fans of the band or the man.
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