Film review: Cobain: Montage of Heck

Any documentary purporting to give new life and a previously unexplored insight into an icon’s life and work is met with a clashing fusion of feverish expectation and fearful hesitancy. Whether unwillingly so or not, Kurt Cobain was the frontman of grunge, and therefore as eternally caught in the icon role as an insect in amber. The new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will subsequently be met with this dichotomy of hopes and fears. Yet any die-hard fans or curious bystanders alike should brush aside any negative associations tied to so-called mega-star documentaries. The first authorized Cobain documentary attains far more than a glimpse into the excesses of rock and fame.

Oscar-nominated Brett Morgan directs, with Kurt’s young daughter Frances Bean at the helm as an executive producer. For eight years Morgan sifted through the 4000 pages of Kurt’s handwritten documents- diaries, sketches and unfinished lyrics-200 hours of audiotapes and videotapes dating back to his childhood right up to the year he died. All of which was given to him by Courtney Love and studied by Morgan in order to give his family and friends more valuable time with the beloved musician, or more aptly-the man behind the music. Interspersed with all this material are interviews with the dominant people from Kurt’s formative years, including his parents, his ex-girlfriend, his wife Courtney Love and his bandmate Krist Novoselic. In addition to this, the cinematography and approach is an extension of Kurt’s style and vision , with a panoply of his sketches and paintings morphed into gruesome but beautifully evocative animation, as well as animated re-enactions of Kurt’s experiences plotted interspersedly. While there is clearly so much to absorb in every medium possible in this documentary, it never feels heavy-handed or strained. If anything, it is painfully personalised.

The title Montage of Heck is lifted from the name of Cobain’s early demo mixed tapes, while also referring to the montage style of spliced visual formats and audio in the film. As Morgen phrases it, he wants to “introduce you to the man-not the legend”. With that we are thrust into the mind of the most prolific self-professed lazy person of all time. Moving chronologically, we are immersed immediately in the determining early years of his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington, where his broken home led him to be weighed down by a profound sense of loneliness and otherness that would spark his creativity and ultimate downfall. With each chapter is an accompanying Nirvana song, interwoven intuitively. The compelling interviews with his parents- the interminably restrained Don Cobain and the revisionist mother Wendy O’Connor- and co-founder of Nirvana Krist Novoselic reveal a character so senstive he was leached by society. A stand-out recollection from Novoselic typifies this acute sensitivity, as he remembers “Kurt hated being humiliated. He hated it. He hated it”. The interviews with his parents reveal a character who was sparked with imulsivity and attentiveness from his early days, answering what drove this sensitivity to productivity.

This authorised documentary feels far more intimate than most autobiographies even do as the material is sourced from the man’s private inner thoughts-his diaries, his personal artwork and sketches, his unfinished lyrics and audiotapes of him teasing out his thoughts to be churned into a fanged finished creation. The immediacy of the documentary taps into the determined energy Kurt expelled throughout his short life. It leaves the audience feeling it was not the complications of fame that left Kurt ultimately so disaffected that he killed himself. Instead, it was the pain of being unable to create a stable family unit while maintaining his own creative identity. The simplicity of what he desired from so young an age-a happy family- and yet could never fully achieve, is what leaves the viewer feeling spent. The raw and absorbing energy of the film leaves the audience as torn as Kurt; who while so deeply in pain, the fear of becoming boring and losing ‘his edge’ due to normalcy and happiness was an equally intolerable incubus.

With the potential of Dave Grohl’s input in a later re-edited version- as Grohl only agreed to participate post production and is resultantly the missing voice from the Nirvana trio- Montage of Heck can only further bloom. One of its principal messages hangs on whether you can be happy and creative or does prodigious creativity have to be marred by a coupling with pyschological torment. In saying that, it refrains from fawning over the drug-addled rock legend characterization so often pasted onto Cobain. The real quandry, one left unanswered, is whether a family man can subvert the accepted norms without being swallowed by an extremist lifestyle. Just as Bob Dylan felt smothered by the title “‘the voice of a generation”, so too did Cobain feel the weighty effects of life on a pedestal. With this documentary, a piece of his humanity is restored. In cinemas 10 April 2015. Watch the trailer here.

Aoife Ryan

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