You hear a lot of things about Kurt Cobain, some of them apparently contradictory. That he was funny. That he was tortured. That he was ambitious and hungry for fame. That he was independently minded and a man of integrity. Twenty-one years on from his suicide, it’s harder and harder to get a glimpse of him as he really was: not as a messianic ‘icon’ figure to be posted on Tumblr along with a profound quote, but as a complex, irrational, living and breathing human being. This is why Montage Of Heck is a film that, if you love or have ever loved Nirvana, will leave your head spinning.
At the invitation of Courtney Love, director Brett Morgen has been granted access to the Cobain archives, a treasure trove of notebooks, tapes and video footage, most of it previously unseen. Rather than a straight retelling of the Nirvana story, the film weaves a dreamy and impressionistic path, with interviews flowing seamlessly into home-video footage, tape recordings and animations in which Kurt’s artwork and notebook jottings are brought to life.
We start in snowy Aberdeen, Washington with shaky video footage of a young Kurt charging round a garden dressed as Batman, or bashing on a toy drumkit as grandmas gaze on indulgently. We hear phone conversations with Kurt’s friend Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, in which the pair discuss Over The Edge, a film in which middle American teenagers wage war on police and parents alike; and there are present-day interviews with his estranged parents, and poor Tracey Marander, Kurt’s first girlfriend, who worked to support the misfit boy she idolised while he sat at home and painted, played guitar, drew comic books.
The familiar facts, now so well known – signing to Sub Pop, the release of ‘Bleach’, blowing up in the UK – are dispatched via swift montages. Instead, we see fame from the inside, Kurt, Krist and Dave mugging through MTV idents and falling asleep in interviews. In one haunting segment, rushes from the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video shoot are accompanied by a choral take on the song. It’s the Nirvana story we know, but from a different, closer angle.
Suddenly, Courtney blows in like a hurricane and Montage Of Heck becomes the Kurt & Courtney show. Nirvana retreat from the success of ‘Nevermind’, and we see the couple hiding out in their filthy mansion, filming each other smashing guitars, mockingly reading hate mail, Courtney shaving her armpits and flashing her breasts. There is no explicit drug use, but media reports float across the screen – Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair piece, which alleged Courtney was shooting heroin throughout her pregnancy (the Cobains sued, and won), a prurient Piers Morgan piece on the Mirror’s showbiz pages. We hear a message left on a wannabe Nirvana biographer’s answerphone in which a slurring Kurt issues oblique threats. We see Frances Bean Cobain – their daughter and this film’s executive producer – celebrate her first birthday.
Montage Of Heck is, of course, a tragedy. You enter with the concern that because of Courtney’s close involvement, it will end up self-serving, a settling of scores. In fact, it turns out, she blames herself. Midway through, there’s something that Krist Novoselic says that first viewing stands out as odd in its emphasis, but on second viewing, feels fundamental. “Kurt hated being humiliated. He hated it. He hated it.” Twenty-one years from his death, Nirvana’s frontman feels further away than ever, but maybe here we get one quick, clear glimpse of him: of a too-sensitive man who finally knew domestic bliss, but couldn’t bear the prospect it might, might all fall apart.