Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a great movie, which has been exercising and frankly disturbing me since I watched it last week.
It’s an HBO documentary, with the production values that implies, so is a pretty faultless piece of film-making. Many of the tropes of the (if you will) rockumentary are present and correct – the camera lingers on Krist Novoselic’s wistful exhalation of breath a little too long as his eyes mist over; the talking heads have 20/20 hindsight; and there are plenty of animations. However, all the talking heads are relevant people who knew Cobain (although no Dave Grohl;) the 20/20 hindsight is often very revealing about the speaker; and the animations are either adapted from Cobain’s diaries and drawings or are set to tapes of his reminiscences or sound collages.
Morgen was given access to an archive of sound and visual recordings from Cobain’s estate and worked from there up to make his film; consequently, the intimacy is often overpowering. Some of this stuff is too real.
Cobain didn’t really have much of a chance to be well-adjusted. His mother sent him off to stay with his estranged father (and his wife and kids) at age nine, apparently because he was hyperactive; the dad and step-mom shunted him after a few years and he lived with various other relations, so not a great start in life.
I doubt he did well in school, although that’s not mentioned, but music had come along as a means of expression by then. Music also seems to have been a first source of self-discipline. A diary entry notes that “a band must practise at least five times a week,” and there is haunting footage of a very early band rehearsing, or perhaps performing in a room, where Cobain is fronting the band but singing to the wall a few feet in front of him. The band are tremendously tight, he is wrapped up in his performance, transported; the couple of guys squatting on the floor are the audience, the validation.
Early film of Nirvana consolidates this feel of discipline – although the gig appears to be in another tiny room (it is a gig this time) and it seems to be almost a party, the band are again well on top of their playing, with a precision and energy which is incongruous for the setting. We also know they were getting regular gigs as a page from Cobain’s journal shows a list of gigs and how he dealt with the income – it looks as if his mom got the lion’s share after rent.
As we all know, Nirvana did well and then very, very well. Cobain’s mother remembers hearing the finished tape of Nevermind and telling her son that he wasn’t ready for what was about to happen to him (good quote, I wonder about the veracity,) and of course, the money then started to flood in as Nirvana became the biggest deal on the planet.
It all starts to go really badly with the entry of Courtney Love, who encouraged Cobain’s junkie tendency, some of which seems to have been a genuine attempt to alleviate stomach pain, some of which seems to have been a fascination with the romantic notion of the junkie artist. The wholly vile Love alleges that Cobain had told her that once he had made $3m, he would be a junkie and that’s how it turned out.
The home movies (and it’s chilling to note that someone actually shot these, the camera is not static) of Kurt and Courtney’s smack den of an apartment are deeply unpleasant and where it all begins to get too real. They are out of it and there is nothing romantic about any of this, Kurt’s body sores, pretty face going to hell, Courtney showing her tits to the camera…Sid and Nancy rather than John and Yoko…Itchy and Scratchy on scag…the junkie Terry and June.
Of course, the big question will always be – why did the friends and associates of the rock star with $3m and constant stomach pains not suggest he use some of the loot to get medical help, rather than let him go on the Courtney Love self-medication package? I’ve always wondered. Dave Grohl seems like a decent man and Krist Novoselic touches on the possibility that there could have been a different outcome if he’d said something…maybe the answer to the question is too depressingly obvious.
Some reviews of this movie have bemoaned the fact that it’s not really about music. That is true, despite all the film of Nirvana playing, but the criticism misses the point. There’s more Nirvana music out there than you actually need and there are probably other documentaries about the band. This is a film about a desperate individual who I hear as more driven than particularly talented – I enjoy a lot of his music for its passion, but ultimately it’s like listening to the coda of Lennon’s “Mother” and nothing else all the time – but it’s a great and unflinching film about a lost soul who happened to become (although not by accident) the biggest rock star in the world for while. The viewer is left to struggle in rationalising how much of this was happenstance. Was it Cobain’s great fortune, or his great misfortune? From this distance, he appears to have been an individual who in any other line of endeavour would have been looked after, but was abandoned repeatedly.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck has been retained at The Cameo for a further week (that’s quite unusual) and was certainly well attended the night I went, with a wide spread of viewers, from old gits like me who would recognise Big John Duncan’s brief appearance as Nirvana set up for their MTV Unplugged show, to the late teenage couple who looked like first daters with their big box of popcorn. I wonder what they thought? It may not be the ideal date movie.