Two decades after his death, what could there possibly be left to say about Kurt Cobain? Volumes, that’s what. Brett Morgen’s documentary Montage of Heck, premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a revelatory glimpse into the soul behind Nirvana. Thanks to the cooperation of his family, Cobain is brought to life through previously-unheard personal recordings – we hear him narrating his own wrenching tales of adolescent rejection and adult paranoia as animations bring his doodles to life. Coupled with interviews and raw early concert footage, it’s the most holistic portrait of an icon ever created. The film triggers the senses: it’s visually striking and impossibly loud. It feels like the first document depicting Cobain as he truly was: a talented mortal seeking truth through art, while attempting to find the tribe that makes this mess all worthwhile. Cobain was not a myth, but a life writ large in all its messy, indefinable, fucked-up parasitic beauty. This documentary not only reminds you of that, but feels like you’re discovering universes about someone you’ve known your whole life. A new trailer went online yesterday, which you can watch below. Here’s a few of the things we learned from the film, ahead of its arrival in UK cinemas later this spring and US television premiere on HBO on May 4…
1. Even as a toddler, Kurt never had idle hands. “Once he could draw, he drew all the time,” remembers his mother, Wendy O’Connor. As an adult, when Cobain wasn’t onstage or wielding a guitar, he was constantly scribbling thoughts and lyrics notebooks, mapping out meticulous chord progressions, or speaking into a voice recorder and listening to the playbacks. The archive provides rich material for Morgen’s film.
2. Cobain was deeply afraid of being shown up. “Kurt hated being humiliated,” remembers bandmate and friend Krist Novoselic. “He hated it. He hated it. If he ever thought he was humiliated, you would see the rage come out.” Kurt’s mom corroborates this, and says that he was mortified by his parent’s divorce at age nine, which caused him to withdraw from his peers.
3. Cobain is often labeled as the “voice of an apathetic generation,” but he derided the label. He was quite ambitious – even competitive – about his abilities and where he wanted to be in the world. “He always wanted to win,” remembers his stepmother Jenny Westeby of Kurt and his step-siblings. “Game nights were really important to him.”
4. Kurt first attempted to take his own life at age 14. In a voice recording, he describes walking along to the train tracks, laying down with a pile of bricks on his chest, and waiting for the wheels to take him. Right as the train rumbled through it diverged paths onto a different track, missing him by a hair.
5. Many of the words that pop up in later Nirvana songs, such as “breed,” “novocain” and “godchild,” were names that Cobain jotted down in his notebook and considered before deciding on Nirvana.
6. It’s common knowledge that Cobain self-medicated to assuage the intense stomach pains that sometimes caused him to cough up blood while singing. He had a strange, symbiotic relationship with the condition: in an interview, Cobain tells a journalist that he “would give up everything for good health,” but feared that if he shed himself the stomach problem, a strong source of creativity for his music might be lost.
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7. Kurt first used heroin in 1987, but this revelation was news to his then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander, who lived with Cobain for a number of years and encouraged him to pursue his art. She said Cobain had never used it and that he had even ridiculed people in Seattle who were addicted to it.
8. Kurt’s family premeditated the impact that Nirvana’s breakthrough album, ‘Nevermind’, would have on him. His mother describes almost crying – from fear – when he first brought home the record’s final master cut back home to Aberdeen and asked if he could put it on the stereo. “This is going to change everything,” she remembers telling her son. “You better buckle up, because you are not ready for this.”
9. According to his friends and family, Kurt sought a sense of normalcy and a family of his own after a childhood framed by rejection. Courtney Love says that had she had more time, the couple would have had more children together. “We were all we had, so making a family as fast as possible was important,” she said.
10. Kurt was profoundly affected by Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous 1992 Vanity Fair piece, which incorrectly asserted that Courtney Love had done heroin during her pregnancy with the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean, who co-produces Montage Of Heck. “I feel violated,” he wrote of the experience, feeling it was a direct attack on his family.