By Gregory Crofton
Kurt Cobain was one of my favorite people. His music, his taste, his take on the world were all so valid and original. Fuck phonies, right? Cobain’s brilliance, like that of many great artists, lay in his ability to communicate the realities and contradictions of life as he lived through them.
The music Cobain made with Nirvana had an enormous impact on millions of people’s lives, yet he was surely human and experienced his share of frailties. Stomach pain, heroin addiction and mental illness were some of the problems he dealt with.
Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10) — with the approval of Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean, and a hands-off stance from the musician’s wife Courtney Love — taps into a largely unseen collection of home movies, drawings, writings and demos to produce one more powerful “song” from Cobain. Just like Cobain’s music, you’ll want to take this documentary in more than once.
For me, the movie didn’t demystify the myths surrounding Kurt Cobain the rock star. My brother bought me a copy of Cobain’s journal for Christmas in 2002, so going in I had a feel for a lot of the material presented in the film. Paging through that hard-bound compilation of journals often felt intrusive, and at times this documentary does too: His mother recalls a tear-filled talk about heroin addiction she had with her son; mix tapes made by Cobain capture him answering his girlfriend’s phone while she’s at work.
But what outweighs any boundary stepping is that this film brings Cobain’s drawings, music and writing together to form a new and powerful work of art, something he would have likely appreciated.
And the music, oh the music. Live concert footage shows the rocket-fast rise of the band. Watching Cobain sing a searing version of “Drain You” at soundcheck and then to a sold-out crowd is especially thrilling. The biggest blasts in the film come when Cobain’s journal entries, cartoons and drawings come to life set to “Scentless Apprentice” and “Endless Nameless.”
One of my favorite scenes is a poetic one shot on Super 8. It shows a black dog racing across a long stretch of green grass set to “Something in the Way.” Another is the intrusive one, in which Cobain answers his girlfriend, Tracy Marander’s phone. The sequence is animated in a very cool way and contains audio clips of Cobain making demos of “Been a Son.” Marander’s home was a creative refuge for Cobain.
The last third of the doc is somewhat of a letdown. This part has the scenes you might have read about. Home movies of Cobain drugged up holding his daughter Frances and living with his wife Courtney Love. The couple in their the bathroom laughing about celebrity and making fun of Guns N’ Roses and Soundgarden.
When the subject of Courtney Love and drug use enters fully into the picture, “Montage of Heck” gradually loses its perspective and knack for telling a complete story. I’ve listened to interviews with the director since I watched the film and he says this approach was intentional. Love and his daughter became the focus of his life, so the documentary reflects that. Cobain’s suicide was relatively sudden (he had attempted a drug overdose in Rome, Italy month earlier), and the film concludes with a title card about his death.
This way of handling things allows the documentary to keep attention focused on Cobain and his art. But you can’t help to think that maybe Love — a known bully — though she had no control over the final cut, indirectly got her way.
Another Cobain documentary, Nick Broomfield’s KURT AND COURTNEY (1998), establishes, through interviews with friends and the couple’s nanny, that the two rock stars were headed for divorce. KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK makes very clear that ridicule, embarrassment and shame were the things Kurt hated most. So director Brett Morgen and Courtney Love point viewers to an obvious question — were they in the process of splitting up and did that push him to kill himself? Or was his spiraling heroin addiction enough to cause him to do it?
Morgen’s doc would have done better to replace its Courtney Love-oriented ending with one that told the rest of Cobain’s life story, which included his suicide by shotgun and the note he left behind stabbed through into a planter with a red ink pen.