A new documentary gives an intimate, bittersweet look into who Kurt Cobain really was
Kurt Cobain looms large in our cultural memory as a deity, a guttural growl defying earth and hell itself, a loner wearing his demons on his sleeves and the poster child of a blank generation. But 20-plus years of tributes, tabloid headlines and tearful accolades later, what else can possibly be exhumed from this infamous rock ‘n’ roll suicide?
Volumes, that’s what. From our first look, director Brett Morgen’s documentary Montage Of Heck, which premiered this week (January 24) at the Sundance Film Festival, is a revelatory glimpse into the tormented soul behind Nirvana. Morgen has said the film is not yet finished, with an interview with Dave Grohl to come ahead of its UK release in April. But thanks to the cooperation – and generosity – of his family, Cobain is rendered alive onscreen through personal recordings. We hear him narrating his own wrenching tales of adolescent rejection and adult paranoia from beyond the grave, brought to life through animated sequences. All is bared, from grotesque doodles to chicken-scratched to-do lists torn from notebooks to, near the end, chilling mantras like “kill yourself.” Coupled with interviews and raw early concert footage, it makes for the most holistic portrait of a rock icon ever created.
Montage Of Heck is visually striking, impossibly loud, leaves a bittersweet taste and, yes, smells like teen spirit. But 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. He 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 gives the feeling of discovering universes of new information about a good friend you’ve known since childhood.
Here’s a dare, though: try breathing normally when Cobain ambles onto the screen as a toddler, those baby blue eyes blazing as he strums a toy guitar. Try again as the music swells when he’s falling for Courtney Love, as you see them exchanging lovesick poems and later, as they bathe their daughter together. Once more as he gazes down onstage during Nirvana’s infamous MTV Unplugged session and squeals: “I’m going where the cold wind blows” during ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, at once a cry for help and a premonition. Tearful fans: you have been warned.
The film’s true impact lies in the fact that Morgen makes you a participant in Cobain’s disillusion, from when he bonds with founding Melvins member Buzz Osbourne about what an “isolated hellhole” it was living in Aberdeen, Washington, to when he describes, in harrowing detail, how pure chance thwarted his first suicide attempt. It’s us who elevated him, yet in experiencing part of Cobain’s hurt and sorrow in Montage Of Heck, we realize that he too was afraid of humiliation. All he wanted was a tribe, to be understood, to be loved.