One of the best rock ’n’ roll doc­u­men­taries of re­cent years chron­i­cles the tri­umphs and tragedy of Nir­vana’s self-de­struc­tive front­man, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM -

Much like the mu­sic he made dur­ing his short ca­reer, there’s an un­com­fort­able, con­fronting side to the jour­ney through the life of Nir­vana front­man Kurt Cobain. To see the young singer and his wife Court­ney Love ca­vort­ing around their lounge room, the worse for wear on drugs with their baby in hand, is not an im­age eas­ily ex­tin­guished.

Cobain: Mon­tage of Heck, a film by Amer­i­can direc­tor Brett Morgen ( Cross­fire Hur­ri­cane, The Kid Stays in the Pic­ture), is a trip worth tak­ing, how­ever. In­deed it’s one of the best rock ’n’ roll doc­u­men­taries of re­cent years, one that stands as an artis­tic state­ment as well as a chrono­log­i­cal retelling of the doomed singer’s 27 years.

This is not a post-mortem. The film stops short of Cobain’s shot­gun death and the me­dia af­ter­math, but in­stead, with the help of band mates and fam­ily mem­bers, tells the story from his early years in Aberdeen, Wash­ing­ton, through to the global suc­cess of Nir­vana, fame that didn’t sit well with the singer and caused him to with­draw as much as pos­si­ble from the public gaze.

Morgen has stated that Cobain: Mon­tage of Heck is about fam­ily as much as it is about one man’s cre­ative ge­nius and trou­bled soul. The over­rid­ing im­pres­sion is that the dys­func­tional na­ture of the Cobain fam­ily (his par­ents split up early in his life) was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to his un­set­tled men­tal state dur­ing his for­ma­tive years. There is plenty of ev­i­dence here, from ex­ten­sive and pre­vi­ously un­seen su­per-8 footage and from in­ven­tive an­i­ma­tion se­quences by Ste­fan Nadel­man and Hisko Huls­ing based on Cobain’s di­aries and in­ter­views, that rites of pas­sage such as sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll also had a pro­found ef­fect on him.

His par­ents, Wendy O’Con­nor and Don­ald Cobain, are both in­ter­viewed, as is his sis­ter Kim­ber­ley, and from that we build a pic­ture of an un­set­tled youth, bounc­ing from home to home, look­ing for es­cape.

Cobain started us­ing mar­i­juana when he was 13 and it be­came a regular fix­ture as he found his way awk­wardly to­wards play­ing gui­tar and then, af­ter a few false starts, form­ing Nir­vana with bassist Krist Novoselic and drum­mer Dave Grohl. We wit­ness the group’s early re­hearsals and gigs (one of them to an au­di­ence of two), for­ma­tive steps in the grunge era that would pro­pel them to­wards the spot­light, most sig­nif­i­cantly fol­low­ing the re­lease of the band’s sec­ond al­bum, Nev­er­mind, and sin­gles from it such as Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come as You Are. Grohl, since Nir­vana the front­man for Foo Fighters, is sig­nif­i­cantly ab­sent from the film, other than in ar­chive footage, but Novoselic speaks elo­quently about his band mate’s need to cre­ate, some­thing re­flected in the many note­books and di­aries Morgen un­cov­ered from the vault con­tain­ing Cobain’s pos­ses­sions. “He never had, like, idle hands,” Novoselic says. “It just came out of him. He had to ex­press him­self.”

Morgen does a fine job of de­tail­ing Cobain’s drive for mu­si­cal per­fec­tion, cit­ing early in­flu­ences such as the Bea­tles, heavy metal and par­tic­u­larly punk rock bands. “A friend of mine … made me a cou­ple of com­pi­la­tion tapes,” Cobain says in an early in­ter­view. “I was com­pletely blown away. They ex­pressed the way I felt so­cially and po­lit­i­cally. It was the anger that I felt, the alien­ation. And I re­alised that this is what I’ve al­ways wanted to do.”

The ti­tle of the film stems from a cas­sette demo made by Cobain prior to Nir­vana, an­other nugget re­trieved from the things the singer left be­hind.

The most re­veal­ing and dis­turb­ing parts of this en­gross­ing film come from Love, the singer from rock band Hole who Cobain fell in love with and with whom, for much of their time to­gether, he shared a heroin habit.

The footage of them, a mix of back­stage and home-movie in­dul­gence, makes clear the ro­mance that ex­isted be­tween them (which in­cludes a sex tape), while dis­play­ing vividly the un­ro­man­tic na­ture of be­ing a junkie. See­ing Cobain in that state is sim­ply sad, es­pe­cially when it’s con­trasted with mo­ments of lu­cid­ity and when en­joy­ing his art, such as when the band per­forms acous­ti­cally for MTV.

Morgen spent eight years piec­ing to­gether this film and he ac­knowl­edges the as­sis­tance given by Cobain and Love’s daugh­ter Frances Bean Cobain, now 22, who is ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. With­out her in­volve­ment, other fam­ily mem­bers might not have taken part. “I’m ex­tremely grate­ful to Court­ney Love and Frances Bean Cobain for grant­ing me un­fet­tered ac­cess to Kurt’s pos­ses­sions,” he says.

At one point we wit­ness Morgen’s amaze­ment as he is al­lowed into the ware­house to go through Cobain’s stuff and is sur­prised by how lit­tle the singer has left be­hind. Cobain’s mu­si­cal le­gacy, while small in record­ing terms, re­mains large in the public con­scious­ness. Like

Cobain: Mon­tage of Heck

of Heck many a great mu­si­cian who died at the age of 27, in­clud­ing Jimi Hen­drix, Jim Mor­ri­son and Jeff Buck­ley, Cobain was a vi­sion­ary who changed the model of rock ’n’ roll; he be­came — and re­mains — a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence be­cause of that.

His story is un­doubt­edly a tragedy and Morgen paints it like it was in a stylish jux­ta­po­si­tion of tra­di­tional bi­og­ra­phy and ad­ven­tur­ous, raw film­mak­ing. One leaves the cinema im­pressed at the film and its sub­ject, while sad that Cobain’s tragic end was in­evitable.

Tod­dler Kurt Cobain from the doc­u­men­tary

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