Senior Staff Writer
Since his suicide in 1995, Kurt Cobain’s life has become the stuff of myth: tormented teen, artistic genius, drug addict. But director Brett Morgen’s documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” adds new depth to the public narrative of the rock legend.
The film, the first of its kind to be made with the full consent of Cobain’s family, is immersive, personal, honest—and that makes the film a massive success, but also painful to watch. The documentary features a huge cache of never-before-seen audio, art and video footage produced by Cobain during his lifetime, as well as interviews with his family and friends, to tell the story of Nirvana’s tortured frontman.
What’s most impressive about the film is the degree to which Cobain’s life was documented. Morgen was given access to pristine super 8 mm film footage shot by his mother during her son’s youth. The effect is similar to that of “Boyhood”—viewers get to watch Cobain grow from 6 months to 8 years old before their eyes.
The footage is complemented by interviews with Cobain’s family, particularly his mother Wendy, who confesses that she and her then-husband were young—18 and 20, respectively—when they had Kurt, and were largely unprepared for the relevant challenges. She describes her son’s hyperactivity and subsequent prescription for Ritalin and other sedatives designed to control his energy.
The energy that his parents tried to suppress would remain, however, and Cobain’s understanding of it would continue to impact his life experience. As the film illustrates, Cobain’s artistic drive stemmed from that frantic energy, and was similarly uncontrollable. In an interview early in the film, Cobain’s sister admits she was glad not to have her brother’s “genius mind,” given the chaotic manner in which it manifested.
The sheer volume of art Cobain produced in his lifetime is incredible, given that from the age of about five he started purging the contents of his mind onto whatever medium was available. The film presents early musical compositions, audio collages, video recordings, doodles and journal entries that reflect the mania of his artistic impulse. He didn’t choose to create—he was compelled to.
The effect is intense, and the early onset of Cobain’s personal demons becomes quickly apparent. One of the more provocative moments of the film is an audio recording of Cobain recounting a failed suicide attempt when he was 14. His confession, “I couldn’t handle the ridicule,” is chilling, given his ultimate decision to take his own life years later. Cobain’s genius grew in tandem with his vices.
The documentary shows intimate footage of Cobain with his wife, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean, in the early stages of their relationship. This footage is simultaneously the most fascinating and upsetting in the film. On the one hand, the viewer can see how strongly Cobain felt for his family. There are videos of him hugging his daughter, petting her head and rocking her to sleep. The love between them is palpable.
But there is also disturbing footage that captures the misery of Cobain’s heroin addiction. One clip shows Love and Cobain very visually sedated; Cobain himself is blemished, emaciated and falling asleep with his daughter in his arms while the couple attempt to give Frances her first haircut.
The footage is devastating, yet it it paints a fair picture of Cobain as a person, which is rare given the degree to which he’s been mythicized as a musical icon. There are moments where Cobain is a champion of artistic expression, but they are juxtaposed against the dark psyche of a man who changed music.
The movie ends just short of Cobain’s suicide, and works to dispel conspiracy theories regarding the artist’s death (especially those relating to Courtney Love). The enduring message of the movie, as it concludes to a Nirvana cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” is that heroin was the antagonist in Cobain’s life story.
As Cobain wails the blues refrain, “In the pines, in the pines the sun will shine, but I’ll shiver the whole night through…” it’s hard not to feel anything but sadness that Cobain was lured out of this world before his time—yet it also serves as a reminder that his musical influence is still very much alive.
Will may be reached at [email protected]