Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

Brett Morgen

Starring

Courtney Love Kurt Cobain

Anticipation.

A chance to meet the real Kurt Cobain.

Enjoyment.

Fascinating yet almost inevitably self-defeating.

In Retrospect.

Maybe it's time to lay films about this tragic icon to rest.

Unprecedented access to the Cobain archives fuels this cover-all collage documentary.

Rock star, father, addict, husband, idol, victim, son. However you choose to remember Kurt Cobain, there is little debate that 21 years after his death the Nirvana frontman remains as alluring and enigmatic a pop culture figure as ever. The records may spin less frequently now, the posters that once adored bedroom walls neatly folded away in the faded collective memory of yesterday’s youth, but the enduring image is that of a brilliant and tortured artist – a bona fide 20th century icon who broke the mould and then blew his brains out.

The problem with films that seek either to commemorate or canonise tragic stars is that they can often be accused of fuelling the mythology surrounding their chosen subject. Director Brett Morgen largely avoids this trap, thanks in no small part to Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who granted him unprecedented access to Kurt’s personal archives, making this the first documentary to be made with the full cooperation of Cobain’s family. Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, even served as an executive-producer on the film. The result is a detailed authorised portrait of a complex human being composed from a seemingly endless supply of journal entries, songbooks, demo tapes, home video footage, sketches and audio clips.

Taking us from his humble origins in Aberdeen, Washington, through Nirvana’s formation and stratospheric rise before finally broaching the controversial topic of his decline in mental health and eventual suicide, Morgen’s film meticulously pieces together the scattered, sometimes distorted fragments of Cobain’s story. It’s an exhaustive piece of work, fittingly restless in its search for something deeper and more meaningful than anything that has come before. You get the sense that Morgen, who was initially approached by Love back in 2007, has a genuine interest in understanding the man as opposed to simply eulogising the musician.

So how is it that this affectionate, meticulously crafted biography manages to feel so ungratifying? Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl is notable by his absence — according to Morgen, interviewed too late to be included in the final cut — but there’s something else missing. Cobain famously hated interviews and his erratic, detached persona was perceived by many to be a defence mechanism, a means of distancing himself from the fame and adulation he felt was undeserved. To call him a reluctant spokesman for a generation would be a fairly major understatement, and as such you can’t help but feel like Cobain would have balked at the idea of a stranger picking through his private life in an attempt to provide both a comprehensive description of his creative process and a definitive diagnosis of his condition.

It’s only through various home video snapshots that we get to glimpse something approaching the real Kurt Cobain, but even here he reverts to state of childlike reverie, goofing around with Courtney and an infant Frances. There’s no real talk, no despairing confessional or frank self-assessment. That footage simply doesn’t exist. Even the way his friends and former band members talk about Cobain suggests he rarely exposed himself to those closest to him.

You could make 100 films about Cobain, from a multitude of angles using the richest material available, and the outcome would be more or less the same. As an adult, both Cobain’s identity and the art he created were intrinsically linked to his mental illness – not to mention his drug addiction — and while Montage of Heck offers genuine insight into his formative years, it’s the tainted popular perception of him that ultimately survives.

Published 9 Apr 2015

Tags: Kurt Cobain Nirvana

Anticipation.

A chance to meet the real Kurt Cobain.

Enjoyment.

Fascinating yet almost inevitably self-defeating.

In Retrospect.

Maybe it's time to lay films about this tragic icon to rest.

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