There are obvious parallels between this 2015 documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain and Asif Kapadia’s recent hit Amy, a similarly-moving film about the troubled British singer Amy Winehouse. Stylistically the two artists could hardly be further apart: as the lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana, Cobain’s primary musical influences came out of punk rock, hardcore, metal and rock n’ roll, while Winehouse’s background was rooted in jazz and blues. However both films highlight the relevant artist’s struggle to come to terms with the divorce of their parents when they were children, both films explore the problems that occurred when their subjects were swiftly thrust into the limelight and became unwitting pop stars, and both films necessarily transfix on Cobain and Winehouse’s journeys from recreational drug users to addicts who developed damaging habits after settling down for domesticity with their partners.
Like Winehouse, another member of the ‘27 Club‘, Cobain was unable to deal with the level of media intrusion that came his way after Nirvana’s breakthrough second album Nevermind turned the three band members into international superstars. In Brett Morgen’s illuminating documentary the singer’s subsequent suicide looms over proceedings like the proverbial elephant in the room, but is only briefly referenced at the very end, by a line or two of text on a black background; the rest of the documentary is more concerned with Cobain’s life, whether that be his mental state throughout adolescence and into his 20s, his relationships with others or the rise of his band. Thanks to the involvement of Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain the filmmaker gained access to the singer’s private archive of journals and recordings and makes excellent use of the material, presenting as full a picture of the man as we’re ever likely to see (and thereby consigning Nick Broomfield’s tawdry, insensitive late-90’s doc Kurt & Courtney to the dustbin of history). Morgen’s film also feels tightly focused because of the director’s decision to concentrate on a relatively small number of people from Cobain’s inner circle: his mother, father and sister are interviewed, as well as Love, former girlfriend Tracy Marander and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, but that’s all; drummer Dave Grohl is the notable absentee, but it’s quite a relief to be spared all those usual record company execs and contemporaries desperate to add their two cents by recounting that one time they signed or saw Nirvana.
The journals feature heavily. Sometimes Cobain’s dark poetry or scribbled lyrics appear on screen, and there are also fascinating notes and lists to read, many of which were apparently made when Nirvana were starting out and playing locally in Washington. Cobain’s Art Brut-style drawings are also shown, many of which have been animated for the purposes of this documentary, while on other occasions his recordings have been turned into animated passages by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing; these are both sympathetic to the star and an enthralling experience for the viewer. Naturally the two-hour running time also features plenty of old TV footage, whether it be live performances, interviews or news archives, and also lots of private home video material. Thus we see Cobain as a child, in his teenage years and during Nirvana’s earliest rehearsals and shows, while later footage of the musician goofing around at home with Love and their daughter as a baby is bittersweet; Cobain was clearly a doting father, but his heroin habit is obvious due to his weight, his skin and (most obviously) the trackmarks on his arms, and it’s little wonder that social services intervened after the child was born.
It is of course, a sad and sadly typical musical tale of a flame that burned brighter than most, but only for a short period of time. Morgen does celebrate Cobain’s career, though eulogies about his particular talent as a musician are few and far between and the director relies instead on the undeniable power of the assembled live footage and soundtrack (which is mostly made up of Nirvana’s better-known songs, with some of Cobain’s own recordings and choral arrangements added to the mix). Yet Cobain: Montage Of Heck is otherwise an understandably sad film to watch, in which the mental state of a troubled father, son, husband and friend is examined mainly through his own words and previously-private thoughts. One wonders whether we should really be allowed to see all of this, and ultimately it’s a brave decision by his surviving family to let us, while thankfully Morgen presents it in a respectful (though not hagiographical) manner.
Directed by: Brett Morgen.
Written by: Brett Morgen.
Animation: Stefan Nadelman, Hisko Hulsing.
Editing: Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen.
Music: Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Danna.
Running Time: 132 minutes.