Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
I was in my parents’ living room stuffing my face with potato chips when I first heard and saw the video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. I almost choked. The punk rock bands that I was heavily in to then, were long gone, so the noise and anarchic imagery coming out of the television spoke to something inside me, my depression, my anger, and disenfranchisement with society. It was almost as if my generation were given a new chance at something beautifully chaotic, life rendering, changing, and a way to rebel. The plaid shirts, baby doll dresses, and existential dirt emanating from that video was loud and it was pure rock and roll. Beyond Dave Grohl’s speed punk drums and Krist Novoselic’s infectious bass, there was the raw gravelly scream Kurt Cobain. That voice expressed pain, love, and a myriad of vivid emotions.
Finally in the nineties we had someone expressing depression and angst in the most visceral of ways, through words, art, and a rebellious attitude. That week when my friend Nancy came up to me in our high school lunchroom and asked, “Hey! Have you heard of Nine Inch Nails?” I jumped up and yelled, “Have you heard of Nirvana?!”
Fast forward to university and I was organizing the stacks at my college radio station. My friend Mike came in looking pale, a hint of shock still on his face. I asked, “What’s up?”
He said, “Kurt Cobain died. Killed himself.”
I pushed him. I mean, I almost pushed Mike down the stairs because I didn’t want to believe it. Up until then he was a musician whose music influenced me, but also a celebrity. His drug struggles and the media assault on him because of it was just part of tabloid story. We all thought he’d make it or turn into an aging musician, still up against the world. But now he was gone. That night I stayed up listening to my Nirvana albums. Like many of his fans, I was so heartbroken.
The film is infused with Kurt Cobain’s drawings, writings, and self-made audio recordings. It’s almost as if he’s haunting each frame, communicating to himself in audio diaries, but also attempting a conversation with the audience.
Pull yourself over to today and I’ve just arrived home from watching Brett Morgen’s documentary on Cobain, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.
The film is infused with Kurt Cobain’s drawings, writings, and self-made audio recordings. It’s almost as if he’s haunting each frame, communicating to himself in audio diaries, but also attempting a conversation with the audience. Home movies illuminate his childhood days as a carefree and caring boy with a doting mother and father that didn’t quite understand him. The film infers that many didn’t know how to deal with Cobain as a confused youngster. Interviews with his parents, sister, his first love Tracy Marander, his wife Courtney Love, and his best friend Krist Novoselic reveal a portrait of a person who was wise beyond his years, but at the same time, too young for his fast brain. The camera lingers on his dad, who’s quiet with tears brimming in his eyes, inferring that there is more than just regret in his heart, there’s a need for closure that will never come.
The great strengths of this film include some interesting rotoscope-based animations whereupon Morgen juxtaposes Cobain’s recordings. This gives the viewer a visual to coincide with some the painful moments Cobain himself relates on audiotapes. We hear of the time he tried to lose his virginity, his disconnect with others in school, and a his first attempt at suicide. His journals, paintings, sketchbooks, and songbooks are also animated, a method that makes his words come to life in his absence.
Courtney Love gave Morgen full permission to use her home movies and Morgen utilizes them to show a no-holds barred portrait of his subject. Love and Cobain are seen inseparable, fully in love and drugged out. It is when their daughter Francis Bean is born that we are given a view of Cobain as a doting, caring, and concerned father. He wasn’t just frightened of the world, he frightened of the world that will possibly stand against her. But his addictions were to get the better of him. There’s a scene where he seems strung out as he holds Francis Bean while she gets her haircut. Cobain isn’t okay. In fact, is painstakingly thin, bruised up, and not altogether there. It’s a revealing scene, exposing his frailty and the absence of any real intervention to get him better.
This is what Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does to its audience, it gives you a dedicated and lovingly picture of this tortured and amazingly talented young soul, but it leaves you with that longing ache…
The growth and ultimate high of Nirvana as the world’s number one band is highlighted by behind the scenes footage of concerts, outtakes from music videos, and cuts from band interview junkets. Nirvana did live a rock and roll lifestyle, but if anything they didn’t want much to do with the media that had made them stars.
The film abruptly ends. No more notebooks, cassette confessional, and no more home movies. We can’t observe Cobain any longer. The effect is like when your best friend leaves the party too soon without saying goodbye. Every interview in this film shows that people than cared for and loved him miss him dearly. They are left with empty space where Kurt Cobain used to be. This is what Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does to its audience, it gives you a dedicated and lovingly picture of this tortured and amazingly talented young soul, but it leaves you with that longing ache, wondering if there’s any way the world could bring him back. If you were a fan of Cobain, this film will kick you in the gut.
This film is definitely one of my big highlights at Hot Docs 2015. The theatre was sold out and there was even a Skype Q & A with director Brett Morgen afterwards.
Walking home from the bus I put on Nirvana’s Unplugged in my music player and looked up the stars which looked a little more effulgent that usual. They shone so bright. Maybe I was crying. I saw the light in son’s room and it meant he was still up playing videogames. It’s probably a good opportunity to get a hug.
If you were a fan of Cobain, this film will kick you in the gut.