Film Review: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” – A Selective Look at the Life of Kurt

At this point you’ve probably seen the film and read plenty of other reviews.  But, as the void report is devoted to the lesser-known, conspicuously absent, and often misunderstood – we found Montage of Heck a fitting case study.

Director Brett Morgen’s documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, has been out for a few weeks now and it’s currently holding a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By all accounts the film is a huge success.  The hype around the film was fueled by the typical stuff: the always classy media took shots at Frances Bean Cobain’s fashion sense when she appeared at the films Hollywood premiere. At the Tribeca Film Festival screening, Cobain’s widow also confirmed – to no ones curiosity – that the director also unearthed the couples sex tape.  We’ve also been teased there’s an albums worth of Kurt material that could be released sometime in the near future.  Even high profile rockers (Lars Ulrich, Perry Farrell) have chimed in with their thoughts on the film in the weeks following its HBO premiere.

Is it really that good?

Since Kurt’s passing, we’ve been saturated with stories, lies, and fantasies.  We’ve seen numerous books about Kurt and Nirvana (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12); previously unseen photos (1, 2, 3, 4); Kurt’s personal journals; books focused on the “murder” or circumstances of his death (1, 2).  There have also been a few un-authorized Kurt or Nirvana documentaries (1, 2, 3), as well as a new one to debut in June.  Even director Gus Van Sant did an artsy take on Kurt’s final days.  As far as music releases go: we’ve seen two best-of compilations (1, 2), a box set, a best-of compilation of said box set, two live albums (1, 2) and four live concert films (1, 2, 3, 4).

All this begging the question: what new or previously unknown information are we going to learn from Montage of Heck?

Truth is, not much at all.  And that’s what’s most disappointing about the film.  It was really cool to see footage of Kurt as a young boy.  The footage of Kurt with Frances Bean is equally beautiful and sad.  In a haunting sequence we hear Kurt narrate his first failed sexual experience that eventually led to his first suicide attempt.  And there’s a really cool animated sequence of Kurt hanging around the house sketching, painting, fiddling with his guitar, and recording demos.  But, is that really all we get?

What Morgen has given us is a fairly selective and deliberate narrative that Kurt was a complicated and fragile individual.  The films covers his childhood and troubled upbringing, his many and diverse artistic endeavors, and starting Nirvana. Then all of a sudden Nirvana becomes bigger-than-life. Kurt hates it. We watch Kurt and Courtney hang out, high on God-knows-what, doing nothing particularly noteworthy.  I suppose the footage is intimate because we see Courtney’s breasts on multiple occasions and an awkward close-up of the couple kissing.  This footage eventually leads us to Courtney recounting the time she thought about having an affair and Kurt – somehow – telepathically knowing it and trying to commit suicide (for the second time, but not the last).   Cue footage from MTV Unplugged and then the movie ends.

But, isn’t there more to Kurt’s story? Specifically, when Nirvana was getting off the ground and playing a part in the emerging Pacific Northwest grunge scene.  The films emphasis on Kurt being an outcast makes me wonder specifically about this time. Is it far-fetched to think that he found acceptance in this group of musicians and local fans? After all, a young Chris Cornell was pictured in a Nirvana t-shirt countless times (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  Kurt used to drive the Melvin’s tour van to gigs in the early days and later helped the band land a major label deal. In 1989, Nirvana did a short run in Europe supporting Mudhoney (as chronicled in Bruce Pavitt’s photojournal) and came away as the new Sub Pop darlings.  When these established bands took Nirvana under their wing and supported them, was that a form of acceptance for Kurt?  Or did that era not support the films narrative?

Because the film portrays Kurt as such an outcast, I wonder if this period of his life – not covered in the film – may have been a happier time.  To find acceptance among your peers after being an outcast in your own family, as well as socially, was probably a big thing. It is this separation between the Kurt story and the Nirvana story in the films narrative that causes frustration as it naturally leads you to think deeper about Kurt’s life.

I was also curious if the film would mention Kurt’s collaboration with one of his literary heroes, William S. Burroughs.  The two met at least once and collaborated on the obscure single “The Priest They Called Him.” Considering Burroughs history with heroin, it seems this meeting could’ve had a profound impact on Kurt.  At the very least, maybe he thought it was really cool and there was a never before seen picture of him smiling. Would it have ruined the narrative if there were some happy times? I will concede that maybe this meeting was underwhelming.  I’m just pointing this out as an interesting event in Kurt’s life (among many others) that aren’t covered in the film.

The film also seems to take a one dimensional look at the relationship of Kurt and Courtney.  In fact, at times I wondered if the director deliberately used the most shrill footage of Courtney available – because there’s plenty of it.  Truth be told, there’s probably an interesting story about the couples influence on each other artistically.  For example, Nirvana demo’d a song “Old Age” at two separate sessions for the Nevermind album. Later, Courtney and Hole re-wrote the lyrics and recorded it as the b-side for the single “Violet.”  Doubtless, this played a part in the conspiracy theory that Kurt wrote Hole’s Live Through This album. It seems that there’s enough superficial evidence to suggest their relationship had more to it than just drugs. But, that’s all that is presented in this film.  Popular media has turned Kurt and Courtney into the 90s Sid and Nancy and this film seems to play along.

Making a film that is the Kurt story and not the Nirvana story has its merits on paper.  But, treating the two as mutually exclusive has its pitfalls. As the primary songwriter, Nirvana and Kurt are inextricably linked. The history of Nirvana begins and ends with Kurt. It was the most significant period of his short life. The film here is heavy on his youth and heavy on the post-Nevermind success. Focusing on these periods of time supports the films narrative that Kurt was a complicated guy with a delicate psychology – something we already knew. But, that time between remains a story untold.

– J. Kevin Lynch


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