If you are only searching for answers about the death of Kurt Cobain, Brett Morgen’s Cobain: Montage of Heck leaves you hanging. If you are looking for the most visceral and moving documentary on one of the greatest artists to walk the earth, you’ve come to the right place.
It took Morgen eight years to film the first official documentary about the late musician’s life, and it finally premiered to the public in select theaters this past weekend and on HBO on Monday. Morgen is the first person outside the family to gain access to Kurt’s artwork, journal entries, lyrics, audio clips, home videos, and family interviews, which were all integral to crafting this compelling story. Nirvana tracks, or variations of them, are layered over these bits and act as both the score and the script. “You see the art, a lot of his messages are as plain as day. I’m not even going to say what they are, but you can see it, it’s all there,” Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic explains. Nirvana’s music is the narration to Cobain’s tragic life.
The film includes interviews with Cobain’s mother, father, step-mother, sister, and ex-girlfriend, detailing events surrounding the root of Cobain’s dynamic creativity; it also includes rare interviews from his wife, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist, Krist Novoselic, about the icon’s darkest years before he took his own life. In addition, Morgen creates a visual representation of Kurt Cobain’s stream of consciousness, which was often painfully real, beautiful and exhausting.
His mother, Wendy O’Conner, recalls Kurt as “magnetic,” expressing how “everyone came to him.” The documentary starts off in Aberdeen, Washington, where Cobain grows up experiencing extreme alienation, thus giving him the tools to create art. The film is then carried by Cobain’s vivid journal entries, audio clips and crude doodles, which are illustrated and splashed onto the screen.
This portrayal is unique because we are able to see the evolution of a disturbed, “genius” kid with a guitar become the biggest rock star on the planet. Unfortunately, such success doesn’t come without complications, and as Novoselic reminisces about the sudden rock royalty they all became, he pauses and says, “Careful what you wish for, you are going to get it.”
By far the most intriguing scenes included the elusive Courtney Love, who was present during the bulk of the second half of the film via interviews and old home videos, which delved into her time as a pioneer for the Riot Grrl movement, lead singer of the punk band Hole, and, at one point, one of the most hated women in America (although Kurt reassures her,”no, that’s Rosanne Barr.”) Audiences are able to watch the head over heels couple live intimately in a fantasy, a rock ‘n’ roll, drug-addicted utopia… for a while.
“Cobain: Montage of Heck” paints one of the only portraits we have seen of Love as a caring mother and wife and not as the monster she was portrayed as following Kurt’s death. One of the most emotional scenes includes Kurt holding his only daughter, Frances, as a baby while he is nodding off, clearly under the influence. In the making of this film, Morgen chose not to glorify Kurt’s heavily publicized relationship with heroin, which proved refreshing. Originally Cobain’s mother and sister were against the moments of drug abuse in the film, but Morgen told them, “You know, Kim, the one thing you’ve always told me is that Kurt’s biggest fear was that he was gonna inspire or influence kids to do heroin, and not only is this not a romanticized image of it, I actually think there may be one person out there who would be deterred from, turned off from doing heroin, and what greater legacy is there in death, 20 years after he died, than to save a life?”
A criticism and also a praise of the film is that it does not touch on Nirvana as much as predicted (Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Ghrol, was interviewed, but even that was cut from the film). Instead, the film focuses squarely on the mind of a beloved musician and his almost mythological life.
As a teenager, I developed a very real connection to Nirvana’s music and their message and never grew out of it. Kurt Cobain was way beyond his years and a lot more human than we could have imagined, which makes his story a little easier to swallow. Cobain: Montage of Heck is so raw, so personal, it’s like he is sitting right there with you in the theater.
If anything, take to hear the simple yet wise words of Kurt’s Step-Mother, Jenny Cobain, who revealed that Kurt wanted more than anything else was: “To belong. He wanted to be the most loved.”
Who Should Watch It: Fans who want to spend a moment with Kurt Cobain
Who Shouldn’t Watch It: People expecting a VH1 Behind The Music: Nirvana episode
Cobain: Montage of Heck is now playing on HBO and HBOGO.
Review by Danielle O’Neill. Follow her on Twitter @doneill13.