Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck Review

By Jared Mazzaschi 05/02/15

The Fix's take on Brett Morgen's new documentary about Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain
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At 20 plus years since his death, Kurt Cobain’s life story makes for a provocative parable: a sensitive yet troubled genius is burdened with the hopes and dreams of a generation and as a result, he self-destructs.

There’s more to the story though, notably the complex personage of Kurt Cobain himself. And when someone as beloved as Kurt cuts their own story short via suicide, we look for meaning in what’s been left behind. Kurt left behind quite a bit. And now, thanks to Frances Bean Cobain (Kurt’s sole-progeny) and director Brett Morgen, we have a little more.

His record is at the top of the charts and he has millions of adoring fans dying for more of him, yet he has chosen to retreat to a virtual hovel in Hollywood to take drugs with his new wife and strum his guitar for an audience of two.

I was fortunate enough to see a screening of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood recently, along with a director’s Q&A after the film. And I’m pleased to report to the fans, that there is much to like about this movie.

Morgen handles the subject with the sensitivity and reverence it deserves, but it is his dedication to a defining principle that allows the document to shine. The director introduced the film by stating that he went into the project as a “casual fan” but what he discovered as he traversed the eight years it took to produce the movie was—what those of us more familiar with the subject knew already—that Kurt was a multifaceted artist who worked in many mediums. Thus, Morgen’s goal evolved into enabling Kurt to dictate his own autobiography. And it worked.

Brett Morgen makes documentary films that employ cinematic techniques to immerse the viewer more fully into the narrative. He uses things like animation, music, and voice-over to create lively, engaging and cinematic films. If you’ve seen The Kid Stays In The Picture, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing. Kurt Cobain, a man who left behind artwork from every artistic medium there is, makes for an ideal Morgen-subject in this respect. This film was the Cobain family’s last best chance to get Kurt’s story right for the historical record and they made a smart choice in choosing Morgen.

The title, Montage of Heck refers to an audio collage created by a 21-year-old Kurt. He made it with a 4-track cassette recorder before he set out on his journey as a professional musician. The collage is comprised of aural ephemera, from cartoon soundtracks, his voice, sound effects records, live radio excerpts, spoken word records, along with Top-40 rock and folk songs. Thus the title serves double duty in that this is essentially what Morgen’s movie is: snippets from all areas of Kurt’s life that come together to tell a somewhat cohesive story, a montage of Cobain, if you will.

Despite the fact that Kurt has been gone for many years, fans have been very nearly coddled with drips and drabs of unseen and unheard material. This film is most likely the end-of-the-line in that respect. Morgen was granted the keys to the final treasure trove of documents, in the form of a storage locker in Van Nuys, CA, controlled by Frances Bean. It was there that Kurt’s personal possessions lay undisturbed for 16 years. In it he found Kurt’s suicide note, along with numerous personal notebooks and journals, as well as multiple audiocassette tapes. This is where Morgen was able to mine for the words, sounds, and images that allow Kurt to tell us the story of his life. 

The specificity of the title also warns us of what is to come, Montage is a movie about Kurt. It is not a movie about Nirvana. The two entities are of course inseparable, but here it’s a matter of emphasis. We are being granted—for the first time in film—a fuller picture of the man, not necessarily the music. 

Thankfully, and most gratifyingly, Morgen spends a considerable amount of time on Kurt’s early life—his childhood. It’s the crux of the Kurt Cobain story, a journey of human ordinariness where the stakes are literally life and death. We are given a fuller picture of the defining event of Kurt’s life, his parents’ divorce, where despite its banality, the event isn’t passed over in a sentence. Yes it’s ordinary, but its also earth shattering for a child and profoundly relatable. And Morgen is able to frame it effectively, thanks to some incredible Super 8 home movies of Kurt as a baby. Kurt was a beautiful child, charismatic from the outset. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent illustration of a human's fall from grace. 

Adding to the drama, Morgen was also able to get Kurt’s father, Don Cobain, and his wife (Kurt’s stepmom) to speak on camera, a heretofore-missing piece of the puzzle. Paired with testimony from Kurt’s mother and sister, the picture of a confused and dejected boy comes into sharp focus. And then Morgen hits us with the heavy ammunition; Kurt narrating animated scenes that add specificity to the extent of the teenager’s alienation from family and peers. The sequences are very effective.

After we spend some time with the requisite music-career ascent, the next wave of new material comes in the form of home video recorded by Kurt and Courtney themselves. Some of the video has been shown before, but there is also some never-seen-before footage and it’s powerful. Their drug use is evident, if not on camera then in the state of the couple’s apartment as well as their bad skin, and oily hair. The people on camera may not look it, but they are millionaires. His record is at the top of the charts and he has millions of adoring fans dying for more of him, yet he has chosen to retreat to a virtual hovel in Hollywood to take drugs with his new wife and strum his guitar for an audience of two.

The footage plays against another rumor that has stuck to Kurt’s legacy; that Courtney is a black widow. That she came along in a moment of weakness and sucked the life and will to create from her husband. The people in this footage are in love and seem, for the most part, happy. They become even more so when the clearly adored child, Frances Bean comes along. 

This footage is skillfully juxtaposed via stylistic echoes—particularly through sound design—of Kurt’s idyllically portrayed pre-divorce childhood. With Frances Bean in the picture, Kurt’s small family and the time they spend together serves as an amniotic refuge from the rigors of his career and personal demons, which in the end wreak havoc on the delicate arrangement. Morgen then employs more of Cobain’s angst-fueled artwork to illustrate the familial bliss spiraling into a miasma of negativity, nihilistic tendencies, depression, and drug addiction. 

The presence of drug use and heroin addiction is an ever-looming specter throughout the film, just as it was throughout Kurt’s life. Morgen doesn’t confront it head on but acknowledges it consistently—in hints at first—asking Tracy Marander, Kurt’s pre-fame girlfriend, if she was aware of his drug use, which she wasn’t. He then returns to the subject more frequently as his career gets rolling and the effects on his relationships and public persona become more profound. Toward the end of the film, there’s a clip of Kurt joining Courtney and a nanny in giving Frances Bean a haircut. Kurt nods off with his daughter in his arms. The sequence says volumes about where drugs have taken him, pulling him away from the family that he proclaims is the most important thing in his life. 

In the end Montage feels like you’ve experienced Kurt’s worldview. It’s a remarkable achievement. With all these materials to work with, a lesser artist could so easily have pieced together a paint-by-numbers biopic. Whereas Morgen has clearly taken painstaking care to sculpt the next best thing to having the man explain himself to us directly.

Another remarkable thing about this movie is the soundtrack. I’m no audiophile but the sound in the theater was very affecting, a constantly morphing soundscape that prods you from all sides. 

Surprising to me was the strength of the film’s conclusion. The movie does not take on the physical act of suicide, which somehow feels like the right decision. Given the violent end of his life—an act that has produced nothing but questions and sadness for so many—that the film could grant a satisfying end is nothing short of remarkable. The end of the movie comes and it is somehow enough. Some of the final shots in the film come from the MTV Unplugged session that are amongst the most familiar of Kurt’s career, but here they take on a larger than life quality, full of subtle artistry and emotion. The Unplugged sequence almost feels like an intentional goodbye.

Seeing that on the huge screen of the Cinerama Dome was moving. And for that reason, along with the crowd scenes at the Reading Festival and some of the other live segments as well as the soundtrack, I recommend seeing it on the big screen, if possible. Check your local theater for showtimes as the film is in a limited theatrical run.

Immediately after the film my first question was, “Where was Dave Grohl?” Krist Novoselic is in the film and speaks eloquently about some of Kurt’s personality traits. I wondered if his absence had anything to do with the well-known feud between Grohl and Courtney Love. But then as the hours passed it occurred to me that Morgen had answered my question in his introduction. This film isn’t about what others thought about Kurt. This film is an exercise in removing as much noise and hearsay as possible and allowing those true remnants of the man, the tactile things he laid hands on and created to speak to us, his fans, as directly as possible, to let those echoes of the man tell us what he had to say. Talking head interviews would simply subtract from that mission.

The same goes for the family-sanctioned aspect of the movie. Surely some will argue that this presents a distorted picture of Kurt’s life because—even if they state otherwise—Frances Bean and Courtney Love, along with the parents and others involved, needed to provide their approval and consent in order for Morgen to have made this film. Well, I believe they are probably right. The film probably is compromised in some way, shape or form either consciously or unconsciously on the director’s part. But then it’s inevitable and human to do so. Kurt was a multifaceted and complex human, full of discrepancies, and he’s no longer around to speak for himself. If we want to know his story better at this late date, we have no choice but to go through those that were closest to him. This is as good as it will ever get, and luckily for us fans, it’s pretty damn good. 

Jared Mazzaschi is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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