Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Director: Brett Morgen, 2015
The trailer for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, released to wordwide fanfare after the film screened at 2015’s SXSW, deserves all the awards. It’s a perfect production: affecting, heart-string tugging, riveting and lovingly rendered with the subject’s voice foregrounded throughout. Even detached observers will decide it’s a must-see, to pay for in its limited theatrical run, even though it is now on HBO. It’s that good. It promises an intimate, definitive and honest look at the man, beyond the myth and the scandal. Can myths be undone? Can relative objectivity be achieved? Can documentaries exist without some bias? (The last one is always a no.)
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the film, is not the documentary we’ve been sold via the trailer and is decidedly mixed between extremes of soaring heights of loving artistry and experimentation (and feats in editing) in the first half that sinks under the oppressive presence of the uncredited, but all over the press tour, Courtney Love. There is a slowly spinning counter narrative aimed at smoothing over the parties responsible for the rough edges of Cobain’s upbringing and the public image of his widow, all while working through many small cuts to dethrone Cobain from icon status; it pokes holes in his reputation and mythology rather than truly, and lovingly, unvarnishing or right-sizing it. It misses the point that in the information age, fans are smart enough to appreciate both the human truths and the art, and are not in love with an image.
In Montage of Heck, real time, artistry and effort has gone into animating Cobain’s drawings and other art, which is pretty great and a new way to look at journals, and new animation accompanies some of Cobain’s own narration of his early life. The animation is appealing and the art is interesting, especially the early childhood pieces which show a clear artistic ability, his darker impulses, his anger, and the wry, sarcastic humour that underscored his childhood unhappiness. Cobain would later mine these things to perfection as a gifted visual artist and songwriter. (But it seems highly doubtful that he’d want to publish most of this meta information). Likewise, the stunning, hauntingly sweet Super 8 footage of Cobain’s babyhood and early childhood serves to show the charming, loving, sweet child he was when he was the apple of everyone’s eye (first child and first grandchild) the subject of the family story, as he would soon cease to be in the years of childhood abandonment and family estrangement. Mom kept the drawings all nice and these Super 8 videos, so mom is looking for a pass. Kurt’s parents want to be seen as well-meaning and good-hearted folk, who simply couldn’t handle the manic energy of a young genius in progress. Huh. Well. What sort of “documentary” have we here?
While good visually, these emotionally loaded first pitches miss their mark. The commentary from Kurt’s parents does not offer anything new or resonant, and falls far short of the resolute artistic truth in Cobain’s music and lyrics which have only gained weight and patina in the 25 years since their creation. Cobain once had an enormous platform to tell his truth, and the myth (and truth) of a rock icon has probably made these small people’s lives quite uncomfortable. But that does not entitle these failed parents to a whitewash. They’ve elected to share Super 8 footage of a beautiful, loving child who they later threw away. Their gambit failed.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is such a strange animal, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There are clips and photos we’ve all seen many times, there are outtakes, there are rarities, there are interesting home videos, there are trainwreck clips of a weird marriage and then there are moments that should, arguably, have never been shared outside of the family. For many people, there may just be too much Courtney Love (both in private film footage and her current version of herself in a brittle, teeth grinding awkward current interview). For fans, the film may hold few insights but thanks to the rare use of so much great music, they can spend a couple of hours with Cobain again. Casual observers will dig the diaries’ lists, letters, and song lyrics featured: particularly the ordinary list making that showed the hard work of the struggling musician and then the visionary creative design ideas Cobain had such as a seemingly simple 6 point video concept he wrote for the future juggernaut “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. This small note is stunning when contrasted with what it represents: an iconic video that would and does speak for its generation, and is a musical middle finger that speaks to two decades before its arrival. In its Anarchy symbols and its timeless stomping of Converse is a thread from Glam to Punk and through Post-Punk to Grunge, Shoegaze, Industrial, whatever Marilyn Manson was, and beyond. No other major artist ever managed to commercialize such a message while aurally and visually expressing bald rage and dissolution so well, so cleanly, so grittily AND as a number one video at what would be the end of the age of MTV. It became Pop(ular) but is now, again, pure and raw Punk, timeless and clean. Cobain was way outside the box, and way ahead of his time. He had more in common with iconclast Bowie than any dead icon or anyone he ran with, perhaps that’s why he was so goddamned bored and set his sights so low in his personal life.
The filmmakers worked with the family to share whatever unseen material could be left in the life of a raw, open writer and thinker. There are few secrets to spill – he was an open book. The tonal shift, the notable omissions and milestones glossed over, and the oversized helping of Love in the latter half demand we consider the source: Frances Cobain, Kurt and Courtney’s now 22 year old daughter, is named as Executive Producer of the film. Cobain is heir and owner of her father’s weighty, burdensome estate, and part of a family & musical legacy full of public, fraught estrangement and upheavals. Did a a family reconciliation happen during the making of this film? While Frances Cobain does not appear, this film seems to be somewhat an angry kid’s story, one who is grappling with some truly heavy duty and not at all private stuff. Then again, there are several prominent adults on the scene who seem to be stuck in much less understandable teenage narcissism.
Remember that Cobain and Love were together for just two years before she was widowed and inherited everything Cobain had created and achieved in his lifetime. Love’s been a public widow for 21 long years, and somehow this family’s private business stays public. A lot of ugly happened in just two years of the marriage, including serious drug addiction of both parents, and a small child was at the center. Any concern about “legacy” ought to understand what that word means, it’s not meant to shame the dead again-yet the more sordid facts are given screen time in this film. Of all the many Kurt Cobain stories that could resonate, including his important statements and opinions that ought to be his legacy, we go, again, to one person’s favourite topic. Love loves to talk about the cringe-worthy. To try to shock us with her unshockability. This drug business is dredged up in a very pointed way to suggest suicide as a foregone conclusion. It’s ghastly. The film, via Love, also aims to reduce Cobain to an oversensitive, overreacting jealous guy (despite the common belief that he was right on the money) and puts forth an argument that this quirk was a contributor to his death. This is a bridge too far. Montage of Heck simply cuts away from the last month of Cobain’s life and avoids handling his ever-controversial death, leaving an insignificant title card with one line to speak to the limitless, appropriately tasteful ways this could have been addressed for its subject and audience.
Where the film veers from foregrounding Kurt’s own voice and hands the narrative to Love, it becomes biased and handcuffed, inviting the curious and deeply unsatisfied to seek out another doc: Kurt and Courtney, directed by Nick Broomfield (1998), available on Fandor.com, a film that Love tried to snuff completely throughout its production and distribution and had pulled from Sundance, a situation that was the prototype for the “Streisand Effect” , and, counter- intuitively, ensuring the conspiracy and her overall scary image would live on. Kurt and Courtney is a flawed but essential piece of work by its very existence in resistance to censorship, with key interviews, news footage of the remarkable fan outpouring that occurred when Cobain died, on the ground recon in that time before various parties were muzzled, an interview with a teacher who took a young Cobain in for a year during which he never heard from Cobain’s parents, and rare footage of Kurt and Courtney in full attack mode against Vanity Fair over the open, bold heroin use and evidence that was duly, and in shock rather than sensationalism, reported (and is also dredged up again in Heck). It also makes use of great childhood footage and audio that Heck would later employ. Kurt and Courtney is quite incomplete but is the little half film that could, with a genuine regard for free speech, exploration of myth, mystery, and image, and a fearless nod to both fans and the public as a documentary ought to do. It was denied the use of any of Cobain’s or Nirvana’s music by Love, even a little reel to reel tape his aunt plays for the filmmaker that Cobain made at 17 years of age.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is highly watchable but leaves one feeling a little dirty. The control it cedes to the family makes a love letter into a poison pill for its subject. It shares a subversive, sly attitude with Kurt Cobain’s worldview, but the similarity ends there. It’s shaped by the family Cobain had the bad luck to emerge from, and by the brief, and ultimately unlucky marriage he chose and died in. Unlike any documentary in recent memory, this one has a totally schizoid framework: is it really a private art project for a young daughter with no memory of her very famous dad? Because that should have been done privately. Yet, Love is compelled to overshare and to stake ever more of her claim on Cobain’s legacy. After serious and stunningly successful stabs at both a music and acting career that have waned through Love’s ongoing drug and personal problems, and more money and opportunity squandered than anyone of her era, she’s lately gone back to the well of Nirvana for more.There is no hope for the cynical and the jaded and those they infect.
The upside is that the film’s notable good parts (originating from Kurt and Nirvana) and the deal it made to see the light of day can be cherry-picked and will bring people to the meat of why any of this is worth any discussion 21 years on: the artist and Nirvana’s music. Art is unkillable. What the family does not seem to get is that the Legend of Cobain is not some bullshit story that needs to be torn down (even if, especially if, that’s exactly what every hurt child wants to do to their parents.) Rather, like The Trickster of Magical Realism in all the best subversive, marginalized fiction that Cobain seemed to channel, all this noise will point old and new fans in the right way, and, just as globally, set the inauthentic and the played out to permanent ignore. Lies, justifications, and old dirt will (again) burn cleanly away.
Music of this vintage is everywhere now, in our DNA, in the public space, free of corporate smothering, annoying advertisement, twisted agenda, or evil intent. Cobain, flawed human being and 100% self made man and artist, did more with less than almost anyone of his bygone age. He burned with big ideas, staunch critiques and important statements about a world in trouble then and now, statements that still deserve a spotlight. Someone who we didn’t really think much about, someone who’s been just an icon to other people who we thought burned out, is actually worth a much closer look.
How about this film opens the gate to a bunch of context that was not the focus of the film but leaks through? We could give some 90’s style love, create some large scale art and media that embraces, advocates, and creates worthy good out of Cobain’s brilliant, brave, incorruptible and original ideas. They touched so many dark corners in such a short time and came unbidden from his too-long broken, little boy’s heart. Unlike what revisionists would like to focus on, and despite a family who still misunderstands and fails to appreciate his worth, Cobain spoke out clearly and loudly against bullying in any form, advocated for feminism, gender equality and anti-racism, and spoke up against religious hypocrisy, homophobia and transphobia, as well as corporatization. Something yet-to-be, something Next Generation, focusing on these ideas would be quite a film/festival/art show/non-profit/cultural movement. It can still happen. This next generation and this century is still young. There is no untold story, it’s out there, its been out there for a whole generation. It actually belongs to the world who shares it and to all who can love Cobain unconditionally and incorruptibly. Cobain said it back then, he says it in this film; frustrated, as all musicians are, at having to explain what’s right there on the page, all that journalists smother, and all that cannot be written about but must be felt in the bones. “Listen to the music”. And draw your own interpretation. By Step On Magazine Editors.