'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
Kurt Cobain was a rock & roll tragedy for a generation who were already bummed out and expecting the worst. He became a legend almost immediately after his death, and the 20 years that have passed since have only further elevated him into the sphere of pop culture myth. Perhaps the best part of Brett Morgan’s new documentary ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ is the fact that it brings Cobain back down to a very sad, conflicted and human level for the first time in decades. It’s a wonderful film about an important guy, just thankfully not a work of hero worship.
As a matter of fact, the movie never revels in any of those “spokesperson for a generation” claims that have dragged down nearly every book or movie made about Cobain and that the singer himself would have been the first to dismiss. Instead, it’s just about a guy. For most of the generous 132-minute running time, it’s even just about a boy. Given unbelievable access to archival material, the director pulls out home movies and photos to depict Cobain’s childhood. There are brief discussions with family that turn painfully honest when divorce rears its ugly head and the troublemaker years begin. A troubled adolescence as a drug-addled reject, burnout and burgeoning poet makes up the best segment of the film. Morgan uses Cobain’s own diary as a guide to these years, reading out painful passages and sometimes just showing the full scrawled pages to the audience – unfinished thoughts, offensive asides and all.
Morgan previously pushed the gap between documentary and animation in ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ and ‘Chicago 10’, but really cuts loose here. Pages come to life and full animated sequences played to recordings of Kurt’s own words. Even better are the old experimental Cobain mixtapes that Morgan found and stole his title from. You can hear the iconic Nirvana sounds being formed through these handmade mash-ups of old music and audio goof-offs. By combining those unique sounds with heartbreaking renditions of Cobain’s relatable troubled youth, Morgan finds a powerful yet simple way to show how Nirvana was formed. It’s a wonderfully original approach to depicting the growth of an artist and the heart of this intriguingly fresh doc.
Even when Nirvana finally forms, Morgan avoids the typical roc-doc traps. While he gives us footage of early tours and montages of the explosion of fame, the filmmaker doesn’t dwell on this or delve into the minutiae of how or why famous lyrics were written. Instead, he keeps his focus on how the experience shaped Cobain.
At first, Krist Novoselic is the primary voice for this era and he’s surprisingly candid and emotional. Then Courtney Love takes over the movie, and it’s not in the way you’d expect. Love is very forthright about their nosedive into heroin addiction and even supplied home movies of their apartment from the era. At times, the couple seems to be having fun while living in a little rock star squalor. At other times, Cobain is completely doped up and lost in ways that are hard to watch. The fact that Morgan gained access to such footage is remarkable. The fact that he was able to construct a movie in which the material doesn’t feel salacious or gossipy, but rather a necessary component in the downward spiral of the narrative, is something truly special. This isn’t a movie that makes Cobain out to be a hero who went the wrong way. It presents him as a lost and lonely mope who made some beautiful music and horrible life decisions. It’s refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of a frequently misrepresented icon.
It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a better movie made about Kurt Cobain than ‘Montage of Heck’. That’s not to say that the documentary is perfect. It’s a little too long, some of the Nirvana remix score cues are a little too on-the-nose, and Dave Grohl’s absence is felt. But as an honest account of this iconic rock & roll tragedy, the movie really covers it all. It’s harsh without being unfair, aggrandizing while still being honest, and always grounded in the human story rather than the tabloid tale. That Morgan could do all that while also making such a stylistically accomplished, ambitious and experimental documentary makes the final product even more impressive.
Inevitably, there will be more documentaries made about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. There will likely even be a bio-pic or two as well. But there really doesn’t need to be. ‘Montage of Heck’ feels like the definitive Kurt Cobain movie. Let’s just stop here and now.
[Note: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ premiered on HBO on May 4th and is also playing in limited theatrical release.]