The beautiful, broken life of the late Nirvana frontman is transformed into a creative examination of the artistic impulse and the soul-crushing force of fame in the new documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Four stars out of five
Starring: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl
Directed by: Brett Morgen
Running time: 145 minutes
MPAA Rating: 14A
By Katherine Monk
Knowing the little kid with the big blue eyes and the corn-silk hair is a two-year-old Kurt Cobain is enough to make you teary in the first ten minutes of Montage of Heck – because we already know how it ends.
On April 5, 1994, Kurt Donald Cobain took his own life with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. From that moment on, every scrap of the man’s 27 years of existence became a little piece of legend, a holy relic of an entire era and, inevitably, the subject of endless debate among the faithful who’ve created a shrine fashioned from fan pages and social media posts.
His image as a Christ-like martyr to the angry, greedy gods of rock is already cemented into the annals of pop culture history; a dark star on Hollywood Boulevard accompanied by a chalk outline and a cautionary tale about drug addiction.
It was a sexy package that moved product and sold thousands of T-shirts, but as Brett Morgen proves in his thoughtful, impressionistic portrait of the kid born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain was very much a human being who possessed as many flaws as creative gifts.
Taking a rather traditional, chronological route through music history, Morgen begins his film at the beginning: We hear Cobain’s mother, Wendy, describe her brief courtship and subsequent marriage to Donald Leland Cobain. It was 1967, and as Wendy tells us, there were very few options open to women at the time.
She did what just about every other woman did: She got married and had babies. Kurt was her first, and it’s clear there was a strong mother and son bond. The young Kurt looks into the lens with a sweet smile, offers hugs and kisses, and seems destined to be a happy creature until everything collapses into a heap.
Wendy leaves the marriage, the family dissolves, and by the time Kurt starts growing facial hair, he’s suffering from a long-standing love deficit that will haunt him the rest of his short life.
These are the years that are hardest to watch, but it’s where Morgen finds the richest vein of material in his content-drenched documentary gleaned from Cobain’s personal effects. With the blessing of widow Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain, Morgen spent eight years sifting through the contents of a storage locker containing unseen, unheard material, including journals, sketchbooks, audio diaries and early cassette recordings of original songs and covers.
One of the more haunting clips is Cobain singing the Beatles’ And I Love Her on acoustic guitar: a stark solo filled with such sincerity, it’s like walking in on someone naked.
It’s a feeling you have to get used to because Morgen is committed to stripping the layers of dried, lifeless iconography off the wriggling ghost who is now synonymous with grunge.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation is the ego insecurity. Cobain had low self-esteem when it came to women, and the story of his deflowering is so intimate and undeniably pathetic, that it makes you cringe.
There are several moments where all you really want to do is curl up in a ball and believe the bad thing won’t happen – but we know it does, which brings a gloomy sense of destiny to the whole production.
Morgen makes this work to his advantage because it brings a natural downhill momentum to the denouement. The more famous Nirvana became, the more familiar the footage becomes.
Yet still, Morgen unearths new clips that bring added dimension to the known Cobain, especially the home video footage shot with Love after he’d already reached rock star status. It’s here, in these fresh takes, that we see Cobain wrestle with the monster of mainstream recognition and a growing sense of self-loathing.
Morgen doesn’t try to whitewash the ugly bits. We see the drug addiction, the low self-esteem and the ambient paranoia mixed with suppressed bitterness about his broken childhood.
But more than anything, we feel the well of loneliness that fuelled his songwriting and made every Nirvana composition a volatile fusion of rage and empathy, love and self-hate, broad-sweeping social commentary and stinging personal indictment.
Most importantly, Morgen does not glamourize the ending. Cobain’s suicide is not treated like some grand romantic statement from a tortured creative genius, but the tragic result of an ordinary soul suffering mental anguish in isolation.
There isn’t a second in the film where you don’t wonder what kind of music he would be making now, what mellowing he would have experienced in middle age, and what kind of father he would have been to Frances Bean.
All we have is what Morgen shows us: a sad life and a realized dream of fame edited into a visually magnetic, emotionally vibrant and creatively inspired Montage of Heck.