'Montage of Heck' Presents a Stark Yet Mesmerizing Look at Kurt Cobain's Life
I feel like i'm being evaluated 24 hrs A day, Being in a band is hard work and the acclaim isn't worth it unless you still like playing
And I do, god how I love playing live.
So penned Kurt Cobain from one of his many personal writings, as shown in director Brett Morgen's new film about the late Nirvana frontman titled Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (airing Monday May 4 on HBO). The entry he wrote is just one of the examples of how ambivalent and conflicted Cobain felt about the fame and media scrutiny surrounding his and Nirvana's popularity in the early '90s – and yet it demonstrates how much music was an outlet for self-expression and catharsis. It's the latter that explains why there's still a timeless quality to those Nirvana recordings long after grunge came and went. The genius of Cobain was his ability to convey his angst and pain in unflinching and uncompromising terms while never sugarcoating them in the process.
And that's the approach Montage of Heck takes with its Herculean task of trying to capture the life of one of rock's most important figures who has already been the subject of countless books, articles and documentaries since his suicide on April 5, 1994. In the wake of Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Cobain's story continues to fascinate those who are both struck by his music and tumultuous life.
So what does this authorized film (whose executive producer is the musician's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain) add to what's already been said? Quite a lot, actually. Usually rock documentaries tend to praise its subjects and place them in important historical context. But Montage of Heck doesn't lionize Cobain; rather it lays out everything in a very matter-of-fact stark and dispassionate manner. With the exception of interviews with Cobain's immediate family; his widow Courtney Love; his former girlfriend Tracy Marander; and friend/Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, this film contains no celebrity fans or rock critics lavishing praise on Cobain and burnishing his legacy.
For the most part, Montage of Heck (titled after a mix tape of sounds that the singer made in the late '80s) lets Cobain tell his story in his own words through archival audio and video footage – including some never before released music – as well as his notebooks and drawings; there's even animation to augment some of the audio material. The result is something that is both revealing and unsettling – it adds to the sense of what's going to sadly happen eventually.
The story begins with his upbringing in a middle-class environment in Aberdeen, Washington during the late '60s to early '70s. Home movies capture a very adorable and cute Kurt as a bright and energetic child that you knew had a future in the arts. But his parents' eventual divorce and his open rebellion during his teenage sowed the seeds of his insecurity and alienation that would find their voice in his music. Some of the revealing things he talks about in audio footage includes losing his virginity to a special needs girl and his an attempted suicide on the train tracks. Yet punk rock music, which came in the form of a mix tape from his friend Buzz Osborne from the band the Melvins, proved to be his salvation and began the road that would eventually would lead to Nirvana. Through sheer nerve and ambition, Cobain helped make the band a reality (Among the things this documentary unearths is footage of the band playing to an audience of just two people).
The movie doesn't regurgitate the story of Nirvana's career or the history of Seattle grunge music – it keeps the story tightly focused on its protagonist. At that point, it's clear that the band's meteoric success took a toll on Cobain's physical health, augmented by a painful stomach ailment and a heroin addiction. Some of the revealing anecdotes from this period including reminisces by Novoselic, who remembers Cobain being hurt from a bad review in the press: “Kurt hated being humiliated...so he was careful about how the art was presented, because he didn't want to be humiliated.” And Wendy O'Connor, Cobain's mother, recalls warning her son to buckle up after her son played her a copy of the band's breakthrough album Nevermind because she knew he wasn't wasn't going to be ready for the tidal wave of fame and pressure about to come.
Halfway through the documentary, Courtney Love of the band Hole enters the picture. The relationship has certainly been well documented and scrutinized in the press over the years as a sort off a John and Yoko/Sid and Nancy rock couple. Speculation about the two reached a fever pitch in the media over a Vanity Fair article that alleged Love was taking heroin while she was pregnant with Cobain's chld. But candid home video paints of a very romantic pair; in a note to Cobain, Love writes: In one of the doc's touching scenes, Cobain could be heard performing a tender version of the Beatles' “And I Love Her” without any trace of irony or sarcasm.
The most heartbreaking aspect of Montage of Heck is the inclusion of home video featuring Cobain and his then- newborn Frances Bean playing together. It presents a very humanistic side of a loving husband and father – not the prickly and jaded persona he conveyed in media interviews. Juxtapose that footage of him and Frances together with that of his early childhood from home movies – as this documentary does towards the end – and it might make you well up a bit. And it's painful to watch Cobain's deterioration. culminating in a suicide attempt in Rome. In an interview for Montage of Heck, Love offers this anecdote: “His fantasy was, 'I'm gonna get to $3 million and then I'm gonna be a junkie.' Those were his words.”
The film doesn’t conclude with Cobain's final act - a title card at that film's end sums that up rather succinctly – or its aftermath. Rather, one of its final scenes is Nirvana's haunting and searing rendition of Leadbelly's “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the band's 1993 Unplugged appearance on MTV. That's a wise and more lingering way to leave with the viewer—not about the suicide, but rather with what he and Nirvana did best: perform affecting music, warts and all. With its spare approach of telling Cobain's life, and the inclusion of the revealing personal audio and video material, it doesn't feel like a rehash of what we already know about the musician or an overbearing tribute. Rather, it presents an opportunity to rediscover him in a new light.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, directed by Brett Morgen, will air May 5 on HBO, 9 p.m. ET. It will broadcast again on May 7, 10, 11, 15 and 30—check your local listings for times.