February 2015. It’s just under an hour into the European premier of Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck at the Berlin International Film Festival and a packed cinema audience is listening to a bone-chilling version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The images on screen are familiar – Cobain eyeballing the camera, Krist Novoselic playing bass low and loose, Dave Grohl’s hair thrashing up and down as he pounds his drums, the crazed kids in the high school gym – but the sounds accompanying the track’s now-legendary video are alien. The trio’s mighty crunch has been replaced by a string orchestra, and the voices of a Belgian female choir called Scala. The results are ghostly, as if they’re soundtracking a death. In the audience Courtney Love, sitting next to a bearded Michael Stipe, is sobbing.
Director Brett Morgan’s treatment of the song, he says the next day from behind giant sunglasses, reflects his experience of watching the video after years spent researching Cobain and seeing something “completely different to what I had seen before”. He continues: “Rather than a celebration of punk energy and punk movement, I saw this sort of ritualistic feasting on the band, and saw a whole different story; a story that foreshadowed what would become of Nirvana and Kurt, with them being devoured by fans. And so it becomes horrific.”
Horrific moments abound in Montage Of Heck – from cartoons Kurt drew of evil-eyed PE teachers, to hearing Cobain’s chilling giggle in 1993 in response to Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke telling him that calling a song ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die’ is “either being really satirical, or going to a really dark place” – but the reimagining of Nirvana’s megatune is pivotal.
It comes in a sequence that features Kurt’s mum, Wendy O’Connor, telling a story about hearing ‘Nevermind’ for the first time, before it came out, and saying to her son: “You better buckle up, because you are not ready for this.” Her quote injects an air of familiarity to the story unfolding on screen, but Morgen adds his own take. ‘…Teen Spirit’ becomes, he says, “like a horror show”. And when you add the choir it’s like… horror music.”
He adds: “I wasn’t consciously trying to not use the recorded version. But when I saw the first cut of the film, I was like, ‘This is funny, to not use the song that broke them.’ It felt like a very Kurt thing to do.”
Since 2007, Brett Morgen’s whole life has been “very Kurt”. In the spring of that year, just after the release of his documentary about the aftermath of counterculture protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Chicago 10, he got a call from Courtney Love. She’d recently become obsessed with another of his films – 2002’s The Kid Stays In The Picture about Hollywood producer Robert Evans, which, Morgen says, “she watched daily for about three months”.
Love, with the blessing of her and Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean, handed Morgen the keys to a storage unit containing all of Kurt’s things – 200 hours of audio, 4,000 pages of diaries, plus shoes, clothes, guitars, paintings, and his suicide note – in the hope he’d discover enough material to make a film about him. What Morgen found inside covered Kurt’s entire life, from the first time he picked up a pen to the last. In one of the many boxes, Morgen came across 108 cassettes, one of which was ‘Montage Of Heck’ – a trippy mixtape featuring the music of The Beatles, Black Flag, Cher and others mashed up with the sounds of Kurt urinating, vomiting and imitating James Brown – that Cobain recorded two versions of at some point before the release of Nirvana’s 1989 debut album ‘Bleach’ and has been available as a bootleg for 15 years. It was such an important portal into Kurt’s brain, Morgen named his film after it.
There was an unmined quarry of unseen material, too: footage of Kurt and Courtney at home together, hours of unreleased music, Kurt’s teenage voice giving lectures about things like hating school and losing his virginity, phone conversations with friends such as Buzz Osborne from the Melvins about obscure films, and video compilations of twisted imagery.
“Kurt’s autobiography is written in his art,” Morgen says. “When he’s three, you see the idealism, the hope and the promise. The pictures are so sweet. Then, by seven, you start to see the shadow: Fred Flintstone is choking Dino, and the marionettes come in – everybody is on strings. It starts at seven and then in his last ever painting there are the marionettes again. So, to me, it was just following the clues.”
A significant clue came when Morgen stumbled across audio that “hadn’t been heard by another human being” of Kurt telling a story about the kids at school finding he’d had a sexual encounter with a girl they (but not him) thought was a “retard”, which concludes: “I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I went down to the train tracks to kill myself.” At that point, Morgen developed a theory that Cobain’s suicide in 1994 had more complicated origins than a simple hatred of fame. He knew he had a film. “I found his actual suicide letter, which was unexpected,” he says. “I just opened up this heart-shaped box and there it was. And I was like, ‘Based on everything I’ve witnessed, this makes no sense’. Kurt didn’t have a problem with quitting music; he talked about it openly. If he wanted to stop performing, he would just stop. Nothing was leading up to that suicide letter.”
Morgen continues: “Kurt’s narrative is as much about acceptance as pursuit of fame. And it was ultimately about his search for family. He didn’t feel like he had a family, but he desperately wanted one. So the second that Nirvana broke he asked Courtney to have a child. You’re 25 years old, you’re the biggest rock star in the world – having a baby isn’t a very common reaction, you know? And you can see in the film that he put all of his eggs in that one basket. And so when that was broken in his mind, there was the sense of failure and humiliation, and all the themes Kurt wrote about in his music and journals and through spoken word his entire life… all connected back to what happened in Rome.”
Montage Of Heck’s big reveal – and this will only be a spoiler if you’re yet to read anything about the film – comes towards the end when Courtney Love says, in an interview with Morgen, that Kurt tried to kill himself in Rome on March 3, 1994 because he knew she was “thinking about” cheating on him. Just over a month later, on April 5, he succeeded where he had previously failed.
“Kurt Cobain died of a broken heart,” Morgen says with certainty, adding: “It’s like Shakespeare in the sense that it’s so human. Part of the tragedy is that you don’t have to search for the reasons. He thought his wife cheated on him, and her and Frances were all he had. The film invests a lot in trying to understand why Kurt would react the way he did to betrayal. We try to find the square root of it.”
After handing over the keys to Morgen, Courtney Love’s involvement with Montage Of Heck was minimal. That was always part of the deal. But Frances Bean Cobain’s input was essential for Morgen to make the film he wanted. It was, he says, “decided early on that she would be the person from the family to oversee things”. In the eight years that the film’s been in production, the pair have become close, and Morgen says the film is “for Frances”, as a way of getting to know her dad. She appears in the film only as a baby – she was 19 months old when Kurt died and has no memory of him – but it was the now 22 year-old who was able to persuade Wendy O’Connor (Kurt’s mum), Donald Cobain (Kurt’s dad), Jenny Cobain (Kurt’s dad’s new wife), Kim Cobain (Kurt’s sister), Tracy Marauder (Kurt’s first girlfriend) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana bassist and “Kurt’s friend”, as he’s called in the film) to talk about Kurt on camera.
The interviews help contextualise the madness unfolding on the screen. Tracy offers insight into the art Kurt made when they were living together in the late ‘80s, much of which is shown in the film. Krist offers fundamental snapshots into his friend’s feelings about betrayal: “He hated being humiliated, hated it. That’s when the rage would come out.” Wendy and Kim appear delighted at the opportunity to talk at length about someone they love. Donald, though, is tough to watch. He doesn’t say much. But as his wife Jenny tells stories about Kurt “doing really mean things to the other kids” while living in their house because he “just wanted to be with his mum” he stares straight ahead, eyes glazed, gripping the arm of the sofa as she talks. He seems traumatised.
One glaring omission from the roll call is Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer from 1990 until Kurt’s death. Morgen’s explanation is that “when we arranged the day for an interview, he was unavailable – he was recording his new [Foo Fighters] album – but I was at peace with that because Krist was the one who’d known him the whole journey. And this was a movie in which I wanted as few people talking as possible; for it to be as intimate as possible. I didn’t need two members of Nirvana to tell that perspective. Dave found himself available for interview three weeks after we finished, and that’s where things were left. I’m supposed to go back to the editing room next week.”
But a month after Berlin I speak to Morgen again, this time on the phone, and ask if he ever got round to editing Grohl into the film. His response is brusque: “The film we’re going to put out is the film that premiered in Berlin.” Then a publicist jumps in to hurry me along, so perhaps there’s more to Grohl’s absence.
Then again, Montage Of Heck is pointedly not a film about Nirvana. It’s a brilliant and sometimes brutal portrait of a talented, troubled and disturbed man. Some of it is voyeuristic, and in parts Kurt comes across badly. Maybe he was a genius, but he was also a junkie who couldn’t hold his daughter upright for her first haircut because he was so high. Maybe he was the voice of a generation, but he was selfish and petulant too. Importantly, the film challenges the idea of Kurt as an ultimate rock icon who’s been perfectly preserved in death. It’s an incredibly humanising film.
“The brilliance of Kurt is the honesty,” says Morgen. “He was a very skilled artist. One of my favourite discoveries was the shattered doll head that he uses in the painting for ‘Incesticide’. Those were models that he actually created, and painted. He really did study and learn and practice. And for the marionette figures in some of those paintings, he would sculpt these mannequins and paint them. Towards the end, he went up a level. His art also became more serious. As he was battling his addictions towards the end of his life, he returned to the marionette imagery he started with when he was seven or eight, which felt very much like a metaphor for his addiction.”
Just as heartbreaking are the moments when Kurt is obviously happy. As Nirvana take off, those famous publicity shots where he’s in a swimming pool and his hair’s slicked back are taken, and he’s grinning so wide his face must hurt. When Frances is born he can’t contain his delight, and in all the footage of him and Courtney horsing around, he seems so relaxed. And yet there’s a horrible sense in the film that although he tried to be happy, he continually struggled.
“The pendulums swung with Kurt, to those extremes,” says Morgen. “I found Kurt at his happiest when he was by himself. All of that audio when he’s at Tracy’s house, he’s happy. You can hear it as he’s doing those funny voices. There were a bunch of recordings where Kurt was trying to do some of his spoken word and was cracking himself up, and he was by himself! He’s like, ‘This is so stupid,’ and he’d try and read it again. He’s just… cracking himself up. I’d never heard anything like it. I got this sense that Kurt was at his happiest either alone or with his companion, be it Tracy or Courtney, but with women in particular.”
Central to Morgen’s mission with Montage Of Heck was his desire to “shatter several myths” surrounding Kurt, mostly that “Kurt was meek and Courtney dominated him and he was this depressed guy”. He does this using the footage of Kurt and Courtney at home together in 1992, filmed in the period of time before Nirvana’s headline set at Reading Festival where the band cancelled shows because, according to Courtney Love’s interview in the film, Kurt wanted to “stay home, take heroin and paint”. Again, he’s obviously happy: taking baths, dressing up and having sex with a woman he loves. “But when you contrast that with him on stage at Rio [at Hollywood Rock Festival in 1993],” says Morgen “where you see him playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people having a nervous breakdown, it’s just insane, you know? To me, that material is incredibly illuminating.”
Visually the film flits between the intimate, hectic and downright freaky. The wildly moody stories Kurt told as a teenager are turned into animation sequences by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing, so we see a young Cobain holed up in his bedroom playing with a guitar and a voice recorder, as well as hunched over train tracks waiting to be run over. Kurt’s journals are brought to life, and scribbled love letters to Courtney whispering sweet nothings such as “I’ll abort Christ for you” dance across the page, before strange montages of seahorses float in and out. Equally disarming is the repeated footage of large, brown, pumping intestines. “He was obsessed with anatomy,” says Morgen. “He has a morbid fascination with it. There’s a shot in the film where he gets an anatomical kit for Christmas, when he’s four. When we first introduce those images of the intestine is where we hear Kurt is becoming disillusioned with this ‘ideal family’ nuclear unit. They’re a metaphor for peeling back the layers, and revealing this dark force underneath.”
Crucial to the Montage Of Heck’s success is the music, which is mixed high and very fucking loud in the film. It opens with ‘Territorial Pissings’, rendered extra raw by the isolation of Kurt’s final screams of “gotta find a way, a better way, I had better wait”. “That angst is the embodiment of Kurt,” says Morgen. “He’s holding nothing back, as if it were his last breath, just pouring it out. That takes it from a Nirvana moment to a Kurt moment. It’s a primal scream, which relates to the title sequence. There are these idealistic images of suburbia, and this monster underneath that’s going to pop at any second.”
From then on, Nirvana’s music is deployed to help explore themes within the film, rather than chronologically. Softer, unheard versions of ‘Sappy’ and a cover of The Beatles ‘And I Love Her’ appear at appropriate moments, and ‘All Apologies’ is used, says Morgen, “very deliberately as an instrumental, orchestral toy piano version, during his childhood; and then, when Frances is born, we bring it back”. ‘Territorial Pissings’ is repeated too, as the film covers Nirvana headlining Reading, by which point, says Morgen, lines like “just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you” have become “so much more pertinent, and you realise how biographical it is. You can listen to a song a million times and not really get it. But then when you get the back story leading into it, it sort of transforms itself.”
Live versions of ‘Breed’ and ‘Floyd The Barber’ obliterate, as they should, but most powerful are ‘Scentless Apprentice’ and ‘Serve The Servants’, both used in the latter half of the film as Kurt falls in and out of his black hole. The only musical moment that seems clunky is when Nirvana’s cover of US folk standard ‘Ain’t It A Shame’ plays over the closing credits. Given the way the Kurt’s life ends, it almost comes across as flippant for the film to end with lyrics like “Ain’t it a shame to go fishin on a Sunday/When you got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday/Oh, Thursday, Friday, Saturday / Ain’t it a shame”. But, it turns out, the song fits with Morgen’s theory about Kurt’s problems with betrayal and humiliation.
“I chose it for two reasons,” he says. “One: the tempo of the song; I didn’t want to go out with something slow, but I didn’t want to go out with something so aggressive that it would startle you. It’s just a good rock’n’roll burnout. Then lyrically, I love how Kurt twists the lyrics around. And since the film deals with themes of shame and humiliation, I think the title takes on an ironic meaning. Kurt has taken the song and given it a different meaning by stripping it down to just ‘shame’. The last thing you hear in that track is Kurt singing, from the bottom of his gut: “shame, shame, shame”.