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