Directed by: Brett Morgen.
Written by: Brett Morgen
Make no mistake, I am pretty much the exact target audience for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. A child of the 1990s, who counts Nirvana as the first band I ever fell in love with, and would still rank them as my favorite band ever. Someone who has read more than a few books about Cobain and Nirvana, and seen more than a few movies about them as well. True, this has slackened in the past decade or so, but I still find it impossible to pass on a new documentary about Cobain and his tragic, short life. But what director Brett Morgen has done with the movie is not only make a documentary for Nirvana fans like myself – like say, AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2007) – but made a truly great documentary, that should be fascinating for people even if they don’t really know anything about Cobain or his music. This is the first of the many docs about Cobain that joins that should join the ranks of the all-time great rockumentaries.
Part of the reason why Morgen’s documentary is better than all the rest is that it is the first one “authorized” by Cobain’s family (his daughter, Frances Bean, is one of the executive producers). This gives Morgen access to countless journals, home movies, sound recordings (including the strange ones that given the movie its name), and interviews with people who knew Cobain from his birth to his death. Making an authorized documentary comes with its own pitfalls as well though – as often the family wants to “protect” the legacy of the deceased, so we end up with a sanitized version of the story (which is why, say, we have yet to get any cinematic works worthy of Jimi Hendrix, other than the concert footage itself). But Cobain’s family apparently didn’t interfere – didn’t have final say in what Morgen included and excluded in the film. They handed over the treasure trove of material, and let Morgen do with it what he wanted. The result is a fascinating, tragic, funny, heartbreaking doc that doesn’t do either of the things that normally sink music documentaries – put Cobain on a pedestal of genius, nor drag him through the mud. It’s a warts and all documentary to be sure, never shying away from the negative aspects of Cobain’s character, but it places them in context with his childhood, and ends up with a vivid, sympathetic portrait of the man. When she saw the documentary for the first time, apparently Frances Bean Cobain told Morgen that he “made the movie I wanted to see”.
Montage of Heck is a “birth-to-death” – documentary, starting with home movie footage of a young Cobain, as a hyper-active, blonde headed moppet, who according his mother “everyone loved”. Cobain was always a sensitive – perhaps over-sensitive- child, and his parents’ divorce when he was 9 greatly affected him. He was on Ritalin, or something like it, and was uncontrollable. He spent years being shunted back and forth between his parents, various aunts, uncles and grandparents – none of whom could control him at all, and all of whom he eventually wore out. He wanted desperately to belong to a family – and never could. As a teenager, he drifted into drugs and alcohol, and eventually found his way into music. The rest is history.
Morgen has always been a talented director – his best film may well be his 30 for 30 Episode, June 17, 1994 – which used montage to connect a chaotic day in the world of sports, as the New York Rangers had a Stanley Cup Parade, the New York Knicks were collapsing in the playoffs (again), there was World Cup Soccer, a big baseball game – oh, and it’s the same day O.J. Simpson went on his white bronco ride. Morgen used no narration in that doc, he simply cut back and forth between all these events – as if one was channel surfing between them – to give us a devastating portrait of the highs and lows of sports, and a damning portrait of the media. Morgen’s strategy in Montage of Heck is similar – yes, the movie does have a series of interviews, and is made up of mostly archival footage, but it’s the way Morgen edits it together than makes the film unique.
In a way, it helps Morgen that Cobain’s life has been as documented as it has been – that there are already so many biographies and documentaries about Cobain – his life, his music, his marriage to Courtney Love and his death. Anyone with the slightest bit of interest in Cobain already knows his story. This frees Morgen up to do something different with Cobain in this documentary – one that isn’t interested in the “facts” of what happened, but rather to give the audience a peak into the mind of Cobain. Having all the material at his disposal, Morgen cuts between diary passages read aloud, or simply showing the many (many) pages that Cobain obsessively wrote or drew on, splicing them together with animated sequences, some of which are like Cobain’s drawing come to life, some are passages from his life. Nirvana’s music plays almost constantly throughout the movie – but Morgen always seems to choose not just the perfect song at the perfect time, but the perfect version of it. All Apologies as a childhood tune you might expect out of a music box, a children’s choir singing Smells Like Teen Spirit over the chaotic (and iconic) music video. It is said early in the film that Cobain’s “mind never stopped working” – even when he was seemingly doing nothing, he was creating something in his head. Montage of Heck plays like that – a never ending swirl of creativity that never stops pouring out of the screen at the audience.
The movie is both exhilarating and tragic – exhilarating to see, more than ever before, just what went into Cobain making his music, and tragic because from the beginning, we know how it will end. You may well get choked up – as I did – in the early scenes where interviews about Cobain being shunted between family members gives way to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” – which is how he saw himself. You may well get choked up again, as I did, - in later scenes where we see Cobain and Love with their daughter – and Cobain is clearly stoned as he holds her. It’s clear he loved his daughter – and he may well have wanted to stop drugs – but he simply couldn’t. The home movies of Kurt and Courtney – both before and after Frances’ birth – show a different side to the couple. Yes, at times, it feels like an excerpt from Sid & Nancy, as two stoned people don’t quite know how ridiculous they look, but there is also a jokey, playfulness between them – which goes against the usual narrative we hear about how, near the end, they were at each other’s throats. Morgen wisely steers clear of most of the tabloid stuff in the film – he doesn’t shy away from the infamous Vanity Fair article that so upset Kurt (but was probably accurate), or how Cobain and Love were portrayed in the media. Bur Morgen also doesn’t delve into the supposed martial problems – doesn’t push Love in the interview to reveal too much. Cobain’s eventual suicide is also not touch upon – simply told to us via an end credits card. None of the interview subjects talk directly about the suicide either – but in a way, that’s all they talk about for the rest of the movie, simply using other words. These “omissions” from the movie that hurt it – but rather keeps the movie on course.
At 145 minutes, Montage of Heck is perhaps too long – you start to feel its length in the last half hour or so, especially since Morgen’s style is so visually stimulating, that it eventually becomes tiring. But that’s the only quibble I have with this documentary – one of the best of the year to be sure – that shows us the tragic life of Cobain. Often times, it seems trite in films when they try to tie everything that happened to the adult to what happened to them as a child – the washing scene at the beginning of Scorsese’s The Aviator is the weakest part of the movie for example, or the tragedies in the early life of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash in Ray or Walk the Line – but here, Morgen makes it sticks. Partly, that’s because he spends more time in Cobain’s childhood than most do, and partly, I think, it’s because Cobain died so young (27) that he never really had time to get over his childhood issues. He was the rejected son who became a rock star too young, and then drifted off into drug abuse and died before he dealt with what happened in the past. That’s Cobain’s tragedy – and at the heart of this brilliant documentary.