Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck has been added to the programme.
"Morgen creates a vivid, colourful and quite poignant rush through a life that was, at once, explosively creative and deeply troubled." | Photo: Anton Corbijn/Courtesy Sundance Institute

A generation and a half have gone by since the death of singer-songwriter and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. His passing at a young age, at the peak of his fame, ensured a permanent place for him in the halls of the ‘gone-too-soon’ icons and all the micro-examination, adoration and hysteria that comes with such a morbid status. It is easy to think that there is nothing left to say after that.

Director Brett Morgen, however, has one ace up his sleeve: his new study of Cobain – Montage of Heck – comes approved by Cobain family gatekeepers, AKA former wife and musician Courtney Love and daughter Frances. Their consent meant access to the Cobain archives, including unseen journals, home videos, photographs and audio recordings. Morgen has thrown this all together to create a vivid, colourful and quite poignant rush through a life that was, at once, explosively creative and deeply troubled.

What Morgen’s film most definitely is not is a detailed history of Nirvana or an exploration of the nitty-gritty of their songwriting process. Yes, there is plenty of familiar and rarer footage of the band at various stages of their three-album journey, from early bar gigs and sweat-drenched festival stages to the more solemn unplugged sessions in New York. Most of Cobain’s family and colleagues are interviewed, including a very frank Love and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. If you are looking for a 90s nostalgia trip, you’ll find it here, and what viewer of a certain generation can complain at being able to watch Nirvana kick major ass on stage? But the focus is really on Cobain’s Icarus arc, on creating a sense of the flavour and colours of his creativity and personal complexes. Frances, who is credited as an executive producer, and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl are notable by their absence.

If Cobain’s arc seems so familiar in the portrait sketched out by Morgen, maybe that is a reflection of how shorthand he has become for the image of the musician destroyed by fame and personal demons. Stitching together the interviews and medley of archive material with animated recreations of Kurt’s younger days, Morgen does a pretty good job of bringing across how Cobain’s awesome creativity was matched, and ultimately sabotaged, by his hyper-sensitivity and his inability to deal with the delirious ride that Nirvana became.

Tormented journal entries and somber interviewees paint a picture of how a tragic irony lay at the heart of the young musician all his adult life ("I live in fear of ridicule," is one of the earliest scribbles in his tattered notebooks). Cobain wanted musical glory ever since being moved to ecstasy by punk rock, which offered him an escape from a broken, boring home in nowheresville USA. But he dreaded criticism and the glare of the spotlight, and was wracked by self-doubt. His physical health was poor, stomach aches and gastric issues driving him to despair, which made the numbing bliss of heroin a tempting escape early on.

The footage that showcases the Nirvana frontman’s other job - that of father and husband - is welcome, as it adds dimensions to the portrait while throwing light on another irony underlying Cobain’s personality. As interviewees testify, despite developing into the icon of a disaffected and parent-hating generation, Cobain wanted a family of his own desperately, maybe a chance to correct all the mistakes he felt were made in his own. Morgen doesn’t avoid using some of the recordings that particularly lay bare the impact heroin abuse had on Cobain and Love, with Cobain looking particularly ragged in the later years. Love’s self-lacerating interviews don’t leave much to the imagination.

Despite being more than two hours long, the film feels like it is cramming a lot in, which actually works in its favour given how fast Cobain’s life seemed to go. The access to the family’s treasure trove of material means even die-hard fans are likely to learn something new, with the funny and painful insights offered by Cobain’s journals and audio recordings of his clumsy childhood dabblings with sex and drugs, being a real highlight for this writer. Morgen could probably have made less use of animations; digitally drawing over Cobain’s journals just gets in the way of us being able to appreciate them.

Given what it glosses over, Morgen can’t say his film will be the final word on Cobain or Nirvana either. Still, it’s fair to say he’s written an engaging, energetic and quite profound chapter.

Reviewed on: 04 Jun 2015
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Portrait of the Nirvana frontman, featuring home video footage.

Director: Brett Morgen

Writer: Brett Morgen

Starring: Courtney Love, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic

Year: 2015

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: US

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