Arguably one of the most influential musicians of the past twenty-five years, Kurt Cobain’s life has been the subject of numerous films that have sought to shed light on his confusing and often complicated life. Many filmmakers have had fluctuating success in being able to convey the intense sadness and emotional pain that was present for much of Cobain’s life.
Where the director of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), Brett Morgen succeeds, is in his ability to weave a mixture of animation and audio outtakes, which complement the narrative of Cobain’s early years — growing up as a disaffected youth, through to the wild-ride that was Nirvana’s heady triumph with the release of their magnum opus, ‘Nevermind’.
The documentary paints a picture of a complex, mysterious figure. Don’t be fooled by the ‘slacker’ image of Cobain seeming indifferent to his rock stardom, however. Early journal entries show an intensely ambitious figure, who documented basic plans about how his band was going to break into the mainstream. This is reinforced by band member, and close friend, Krist Novoselic. He reflected on how hurt and angry Cobain felt after a Washington music magazine was scathing in its review of Nirvana’s first single for Sub Pop records.
The most notable absence from the documentary is Dave Grohl, which many audience members noted at the film’s recent premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Morgen has stressed, on more than one occasion, that this was more an issue of a conflicting schedules, rather than reluctance on Grohl’s part.
The success of gaining such candid insights from an intimate set of people, can be attributed to the key role that Frances Cobain offered. She gave Morgen her blessing to proceed with the project and has reportedly said that she ‘trusted [Morgen] implicitly’. Having witnessed the contrasting interviews between Cobain’s former partners, Tracy Marander and Courtney Love, one cannot help but wonder what might have been if Cobain had of stuck with the more grounded, stabilising figure in Marander, as opposed to the often chaotic existence of Love’s heroin use.
Morgen was very selective about who he wanted to interview, stating that ‘[he] wanted to interview people whom [he] thought would be present at Kurt’s funeral if he were say, a janitor instead of an famous rock star’. The interviews provided throughout the documentary from Cobain’s mother (Wendy O’Connor) and father (Don Cobain) through to his surviving wife, Courtney Love, insight into the sadness of having lost a person who was more than a symbol of rock n’ roll.
The documentary does its best and largely succeeds in not fawning over its subject matter. At times this results in an uncomfortable viewing experience to witness the slow demise of a gifted songwriter, once dubbed the ‘voice of his generation’. This is manifested in footage of Cobain appearing to be under the influence while he is assisting his wife giving their daughter her first haircut.
Montage of Heck triumphs because it provides an accurate testimony of Cobain’s heroin use through the 1992-93 period, which goes some way into explaining the further decline in his mental state. The documentary provides the perfect balance of protecting his legacy, while at the same time showing the audience his convoluted humanity. Morgen has hinted at the strong possibility of a Cobain solo album for an Australian summer release. This has largely resulted from a strong interest in the film, and a strong desire from the Cobain estate and Morgen to share unreleased music to the rest of the world. This, hopefully, will result in a large number of people being exposed to a more intimate style of music that is a strong departure from the heavy grunge leanings of Nirvana releases.
Reviewed by Leigh Simpson
3.5 out of 5 stars