Movies · Music

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

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.

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck





Happy 100 to The Cameo



Orson Wells Edinburgh Cameo 1953

Praise The Cameo!
One hundred years old this year and recently refurbished in a manner which goes against the direction of the business grain, that is, with the customer in mind…bigger, new screens, state-of-the-art sound systems and fewer, yes, fewer but more comfortable seats. And retaining a personality as one of Scotland’s back court cinemas.



Cameo Cinema Edinburgh 100th Birthday


Gigs · Movies · Music · Theatre

Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us


Goldfrapp Tales of Us

Last week we attended the screening of Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us film.  Executive produced by Alison Goldfrapp and written and directed by her partner Lisa Gunning, you get the drift…a series of shorts to accompany tracks from last year’s very good album of the same name.  Mostly monochrome, some colour, some flesh, some countryside, all expensive looking.

What I was more interested in was the second part of the evening, which was billed as an “exclusive” live performance broadcast from a studio (AIR in London, I think,) where “exclusive” must mean “limited to everyone who was interested enough to buy a ticket.”  I was curious how this would work, what the aesthetic of a live music performance would be in this format.  Having watched quite a few live (or as-live) theatre broadcasts now, I know that can be hit or miss.

The band was indeed arrayed in a studio with some foliage; there were multiple camera angles, which made the first game trying to figure out where the cameras were (none appeared in any shot;) the second game was wondering how the music sounded so good and flawless.  Fair enough, broadcasting from a recording studio probably affords opportunities and avoids pitfalls of theatrical live performance, but it just sounded uncannily great.

So the next game was watching Alison’s mouth for signs of lip-synching, of which there were none, which led to the conclusion that she must have a Sinatra-like control of dynamics and phrasing.  However, when she spoke to the “audience,” i.e. all of us exclusively sitting in cinemas throghout the UK, and moved the mike-stand around, it rattled; when she put down a glass (far off-mike), we clearly heard it clunk, there was also a lot of fiddling with in-ear monitors.  I did begin to wonder if all these things were there to stress how live the experience was.  It was certainly weird to have the singer address a (small) cinema audience as if we were in the room.  There was no apparent audience in the studio.

People didn’t know whether, or when to clap.  At the NT Live theatre broadcasts, it has been stressed that the actors can hear and will react to audience noise (although, coming from upward of 200 cinemas, that must be a weird feed.)  As a result, the presentation was neither fish nor flesh, which I think may have been acknowledged by visually rendering the piece Thea uniquely as a one camera shoot of Alison alone at the microphone in front of a very seventies-TOTP back projection.

So, although it was entertaining and well shot (with the aforementioned excellent sound) and had a fair bit of guitar porn (Charlie Jones’ plexiglass Precision bass for one,) as a live experience it ultimately seemed to be a brave experiment that didn’t quite work.

Much praise to the Picturehouse chain and Edinburgh’s recently lovingly-refurbished Cameo cinema for trying it out though.  I’ll be curious to see if any other musicians try out this way of presenting a live show and I’m certainly more enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing Goldfrapp (really) in Glasgow next month.



Alison Goldfrapp



Damn these counterproductive film trailers!

Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini

Yesterday I saw and enjoyed Enough Said at the nicely refurbished Cameo 2.

This is the fourth film in a row of quite a mixed bag which I have recently enjoyed, the other three being Sunshine on Leith, Filth and Blue Jasmine.

It struck me that a common thread for my experience of all these films is that I didn’t see the trailer for any of them; they would be being trailed when I was on a beach in Crete a few weeks ago.  So the consequent disappointment of watching a film to realise that you already knew all the key plot points from repeated and involuntary viewings of the trailer did not materialise.

Carnage by Roman Polanski

Polanski’s Carnage was a very funny film, but would have been a lot more enjoyable had the trailer not included or alluded to almost every joke (including Kate Winslet’s impressive vomit.)  And having seen the trailer for Le Week-end about three times now, I don’t think there’s actually any need to go and see the film, which actually looks pretty good.

Here’s the trailer for Citizen Kane, which is how trailers should be done.  Humourous and tantalizing, without any spoilers from the film; in fact, there is not even a sight of Kane, or Welles…