Intimacy and Distance Dominate ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’

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When an artist dies at a young age, the general cultural reaction can be to elevate that person, their work, and their legacy to something beyond the reality in which they lived their lives. A great example of that would be Jim Morrison and The Doors, who I maintain would be belting out Light My Fire at state fairs and other smaller venues had Morrison not died at the age of 27. Of course, we merely see images of the vibrant young Morrison and never the image of a man who got more bloated than Elvis in half the time. The culture mythologized Morrison following his death, painting him a being working on another level that wasn’t long for this realm. A doomed visionary. But if we place The Doors within the context of their era, they were just another band amongst thousands. They started no new cultural craze. They didn’t shift music in any particular direction that it wasn’t already going. Their entire legacy is tied Morrison’s death.

That, however, cannot be said of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. While Cobain and Morrison share the distinction of dying at 27, Cobain and Nirvana entirely shifted the music of the era. The attempt to mythologize Cobain was happening while he was alive and he desperately tried to reject the hackneyed title of “voice of a generation.” But in the 21 years since his death, there’s been plenty of other kinds of mythologizing, from a statue displaying a solitary tear in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, to the paranoid conspiracy theories which “prove” that Cobain was murdered by his wife Courtney Love – seriously, there’s a truther for everything. Using unprecedented access into notebooks, personal recordings, and audio tapes, director Brett Morgen attempts to use Cobain’s own words to demythologize him. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck somehow maintains both an intimacy and a distance from its subject. It’s a film that keeps your attention throughout, even if doesn’t quite realize its full potential.

From its opening scenes, Montage of Heck establishes that it will be presenting unseen family footage. At first, we’re presented Super 8 footage of a very young Cobain as a toddler, birthdays, toys and all. These images only show us the level of access, but the lullaby version of All Apologies playing over just reeked of bullshit sentimentality. Much later, we’re shown camcorder video of Kurt and Courtney with their young child Frances Bean. In all seriousness, some of the video footage of Kurt and Courtney is reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s films, and that’s not always a bad thing. The video footage takes a turn for the heartbreaking in many tender moments between Kurt and his infant daughter.

And that sense of intimacy extends to Cobain’s notebooks. There are multiple montages set to various Nirvana songs – it’s not a greatest hits comp, thankfully – that show a multitude of notes and drawings from throughout the years. Then there are the audio recordings, sometimes well-presented with animated interpretations, where Cobain tells intimate stories, makes demos, or constructs sound collages. Unlike Morgen’s film adaptation of Robert EvansThe Kid Stays in the Picture, where he used the recollections of a person to build his own mythology, Morgen uses his extensive access to allow Kurt Cobain to posthumously deconstruct the myth that has been built around him since his death.

The film’s intimacy, though, is underserved by the film’s failure to contextualize the private moments. There’s only a limited number of interview subjects – Krist Novoselic, Courtney Love, a former girlfriend, and Kurt’s father, mother, stepmother, and sister. Even then, the interviews are remarkably sparse. Outside of archival footage, Dave Grohl is absent and I believe that the name of Chad Channing, the drummer for the band’s first album Bleach, briefly uttered once. There’s little information on how things within Nirvana worked, nor any exploration as to how this band became the last rock ‘n’ roll band to have a seismic cultural effect. Even more distressing, Morgen fails to explore Kurt’s drug use outside of his relationship to Courtney Love. Aside from Love, Kurt’s heroin use is only briefly mentioned by those who were interviewed.

Even with its shortcomings, Montage of Heck is essential viewing for any Nirvana fan. It gives the viewer amazing access to its subject, though it does mistake intimacy for depth. Even if some of the musical montages affect the film’s overall pacing, they’re always in the service of trying to shed further light on the inner-Cobain and the music is the loud, driving, mournful music that captivated me years ago and still does to this day. At its best, Montage of Heck encapsulates the best Nirvana song, moving with a sound and fury of brutal emotional honesty. It’s not a great film. It’s not about the voice of a generation. Those are bullshit titles anyways.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck opens in select theaters on April 24th, 2015 and airs on HBO May 4th.

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