Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck Review: director Brett Morgan redefines the rock documentary with stirring results.
Most rock documentaries about fallen musicians follow a standard template: talking head interviews on said person’s influence, and torrid stories of decadence and tragic decline. But it often feels incomplete due to second hand accounts.
The new HBO documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck touches on all these elements, but it also accomplishes seemingly the impossible: the ghost of Cobain haunts the film, and his presence is so vibrant than the viewer is mainlined straight into his psyche.
Director Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays In The Picture) was given access to Cobain’s family archives by the Nirvana frontman’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain, with a simple edict: Keep it real and make it honest. And that’s exactly what makes it such a singular and harrowing experience.
It starts off at the beginning of Cobain’s life: grainy Super-8 family films show a bright-eyed, tow-headed child, who by his mother’s account was a happy and creative soul. But things soured when his parents divorced and no one could handle his hyperactivity and rebellious nature.
His feeling of rejection was the key ingredient to his burgeoning creative spirit, and Cobain poured all his inner pain into his journals and drawings, which Morgan animates to great effect. His childhood artwork goes from idyllic to violent, and Cobain’s diary passages are so tactile and tragic that it makes for uncomfortable viewing. A note addressed to an early girlfriend, states: Look through my things and figure me out. This could easily be the film’s tagline/mission statement.
Cobain’s childhood wounds were a scab easily picked away: interviews with his widow Courtney Love and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic clarify that his oversensitivity couldn’t allow for humiliation. It was this rampant insecurity, along with his history of stomach pain that led him to seek solace in addiction, and ultimately suicide.
The scenes of the newlywed singer and Love grappling with drug abuse during her pregnancy are agonizing: they’re often barely intelligible, self-absorbed and delusional. It’s only when Frances is born, that they show brief moments of clarity. It’s apparent Cobain loved his daughter, but even more so that he had little emotional resources to tend to her needs.
Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned any Nirvana musical anecdotes? While Nirvana songs are played throughout (some arranged as orchestral insturmentals), it’s not the focal point. Most performance footage shows Cobain lost in the noise onstage, seemingly trying to escape it, and the massive festival crowds. This was an artist who only wanted to be as big as The Pixies, not The Beatles.
Montage of Heck seeks to understand Cobain’s genius and decline, without attempting to over-explain it. It doesn’t deify or demonize, but paints him as a mercurial and frustrating figure, trapped in his despair and unable to find solace in his family and his artistic merits.
The film isn’t perfect however: given the lack of input by Dave Grohl (who was unavailable due to touring) and other alt-rock luminaries, the picture feels at times incomplete. Some sequences sputter out, and others go on too long. But these are easily acceptable errors given the film as a whole.
The film notes how Cobain loathed being the spokesman of Generation X. But for legions of latchkey kids battered by divorce, political cynicism and low self-esteem, he was the only logical choice. His absence remains profoundly felt, but for the film’s 2 hr and 12 minute running time, he feels very much alive.
Montage of Heck airs this month on HBO. You can also pre-order the film on Amazon via the link below:
[amazon_image id=”B00WNEKFZ6″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Cobain: Montage of Heck [Blu-ray] [/amazon_image]