Friday, May 5, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie & Tupac (2002)

Kurt & Courtney (1998)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Nick Broomfield is a talented documentary filmmaker – but a large part of him is also just a muckraking tabloid journalist who seems to enjoy taking on documentaries about famous people who don’t want to talk to him, and trying to figure out how to go about getting access. It’s a system that perhaps only Broomfield could pull off – since his films are always as much about their own making as they are their subjects, so even if he never gets anywhere, he still has a film to show. In 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 2002’s Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield sets out to make two documentaries about the deaths of famous musicians – and whether there was a conspiracy involved in their deaths that implicate other famous people close to them. In Kurt & Courtney, he tries to unravel the truth behind Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and whether it was really murder – and whether his wife, Courtney Love, was involved in the plot to kill him. In Biggie & Tupac, he tries to figure out if Tupac’s murder was really an elaborate ruse perpetrated by Suge Knight – the head of Death Row Records, Tupac’s label, in an effort to avoid paying him millions in royalties, and then – 6 months later – killing Biggie Smalls to help build the narrative of East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars that would account for both murders. In both movies, Broomfield tries very hard to get to the truth – and ends up talking mainly to a bunch of people on the periphery of the lives of the dead superstars, all of whom have a lot to say – but not a whole lot of evidence to back any of it up. Yet even if, like me, you accept the standard explanations for these deaths – that Cobain killed himself (something, ultimately even Broomfield says he believes), and that a rival gang member that Tupac and Suge Knight beat up earlier in the same night Tupac was killed came back for retaliation (and was later, himself murdered in an unrelated gang fight) there is still value here (for the record, I don’t think anyone really knows what happened with Biggie Smalls’ murder) – there is value in Broomfield’s films – not least of which is entertainment value.
As a documentary filmmaker, Broomfield seemingly has no fear. He walks into any place, and will talk to anyone. In Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, he walks in unannounced with his camera person and a boom mic into a sketchy looking biker bar, and walks out just fine. In Kurt & Courtney, he talks to various addicts and hangers-on – including a scary looking man named El Duce, who claims Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt. In Biggie & Tupac, he somehow convinces the prison where Suge Knight was serving time to let him in – even though Suge had no agreed to an interview – and then, amazingly, gets the interview anyway. He has less lucky with Courtney Love – although he does get a few words from her near the end of the film at an ACLU event (she clearly knows who he is – addressing him by his first name) – an event that Broomfield will eventually be thrown out of as he commandeers the mic, and openly questions why the ACLU invited Love as their speaker, considering how many times she has openly threatened reporters (allegations that are irrefutable). In Kurt & Courtney, he teams up with two people who call themselves members of the “stalkerazzi” – who say they know how to get questions to famous people – but the two are complete, bumbling idiots – and amateurs compared to Broomfield.
There is a pattern established in both of these films in which Broomfield finds someone who is on the fringes of the case, and goes to interview them. They always claim they have explosive information that is going to blow things wide open – they just cannot share it at this time. In Kurt & Courtney, they all seem to think Kurt was some sort of saint, and Courtney the bitch harpie who ruined his life – even Love’s own father. What’s fascinating in that film is that to a person, they all claim Courtney Love is some sort of greedy bitch after Kurt’s money – and then half of them try to hawk their own book on the subject. Oddly, Broomfield rarely calls any of them out on that – he certainly did in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer -  although he does confront Love’s father, and asks him what kind of father would do what he’s doing to his daughter. It’s similar in Biggie & Tupac – he meets with various people who try to hawk their book or their music – everyone trying to cash in basically by their proximity to a famous person.
Yet both films have one sympathetic character in them as well. In Kurt & Courtney, that’s Kurt’s Aunt Mary – who doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone, and who will go on about Kurt lovingly for long periods of time – and started using Kurt’s life and death as an example to schoolkids. In Biggie & Tupac, it’s Biggie’s mother – who simply wants answers (out of the three famous musicians depicted, only Biggie’s music is in the films – the estates of Cobain and Tupac wouldn’t give up the rights). 
Ultimately, I think the value of both films is more in their depictions of those who surround rich an
d famous people than for any real insight into the deaths of the musicians involved. There is a lot of talk about conspiracies, but nothing that really, truly convinces of anything. No, the portrait painted of Courtney Love is far from flattering in Kurt & Courtney – but at worst, she’s portrayed as a gold digger who liked being famous, and took to it well (it should be noted that the film was made around the time of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt – in which Love delivered an amazing performance, and seemingly had her life together – it didn’t last). And the portrait of Suge Knight isn’t nice either – but you don’t have to work too hard to make Suge Knight look violent, do you?
The two films are Broomfield’s best – they don’t rise to the level of either of his Aileen Wuornos docs or Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (I think, it’s been years since I saw that one, but it was my favorite at the time – and in need or a re-visit) or Tales of the Grim Sleeper. But both are fascinating portraits of fame – and those who are attracted to it. I’m not sure they were quite the films Broomfield set out to make – but they’re good just the same.

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