Film Review – Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck shows an extremely open and revealing side to the reclusive grunge icon. Comprised of Cobain’s journals, scenes from Super 8 films, home videos, and Mark Millar-style comic book stories, this is definitely the definitive documentary of this enigmatic artist’s life.

The enticing opener – a shrilling distorted voice clip of Cobain inviting the audience with ‘…hey, come here, I want to show you something…’ – sets an immediate eerie tone to the documentary, followed by an amusing backstage video of Cobain before Nirvana’s 1992 Reading Festival performance, dressed in a long blonde wig and gown, being pushed around in a wheelchair. After watching the beginning of this stage show, the audience are shown home videos of a young, wide-eyed Kurt as he grows up a normal child – being spoilt by his family, playing outside, and strumming his first guitar. As an interview with his parents plays over the top, family videos and old film clips are shown in a fast-paced montage, possibly representing his hyperactivity as a child or merely as a way of moving the narrative along to his troubled adolescence, where his character really began to develop.

As we reach his teenage years, a tremendously barefaced and transparent voice over from Kurt talks about life events that others would hide – making director, Brett Morgen’s job of documenting the interesting truths of the grunge icon’s life extremely easy, not just featuring stories based on hearsay or rumours (like the numerous infamous stories about the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin), but rather actual accounts from journals and tapes created by Cobain, himself.

Certain events of Cobain’s life are documented with comic-book style animations (drawing comic-books being a favourite past-time of Kurt’s), such as his first sexual experience and suicide attempt, his time spent alone in his house shared with an early girlfriend, and repercussions of his negative public persona. The fantastic animation, done by Stefan Nadelman (working in the art department for ‘Free to Play’ and ‘Evocateur’) and Hisko Hulsing, is really what sets this documentary apart from others about Cobain’s life and most music documentaries in general. As well as attempting to illustrate the mind of a troubled genius, this audio and visual assault is at times perverse and haunting completely capturing Kurt’s essence, based on the dark drawings and lyrics he produced. Drawings that Cobain made himself are brought to life often in a frantic and sporadic fashion, forcing the audience into Kurt’s mind, which was undoubtedly not always pleasant.

Early on in the film, the soundtrack features music from the Everly Brothers, played during a description of his young life with parents Don and Wendy Cobain, however the rest is comprised of Nirvana instrumentals and orchestrated covers – some of which do not add anything in place of the original songs, but are interesting to listen Cobain-Montage-of-Heck-1to.

The documentation of the early days of Nirvana are extremely interesting, such as an illustration looking into the numerous different band names, before ‘Nirvana’ was settled upon. Early videos of their performances feature crowds that any modern up-and-coming band could only dream of, also providing a good insight into the grunge scene in the late 80s and early 90s. This particular section of the film has a number of charming scenes with Cobain – as he brags about a song only having “two notes… that’s it”, and his exclamation of “it’s all in the music!” when asked about the meaning of his songs – but all scenes of success are tinted with obvious sadness, as these are intertwined with more disturbing, restless animation, illustrating Cobain’s insecurities as a musician.

The notion of Cobain wanting ‘a comfortable life’ is then juxtaposed with his documented life with Courtney. Their home videos together are almost hard to watch – any funny moments are tainted by the looming addictions and marital problems (most notably as they parody themselves, or rather their media portrayals, quivering and commenting on being ‘needle sick’).

A number of relatives and acquaintances are interviewed (I use acquaintances in place of ‘friends’ as it is hard, by the end of the documentary, to tell who Kurt really liked besides his young daughter Frances, who is credited as an Executive Producer) including his mother, a brief talk with his father, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, early girlfriend Tracy Marander, and infamous widowed wife Courtney Love. All interviews add something to the documentary – his mother’s positive outlook stating that “Kurt had to be born”; Marander addressing her label of ‘trying to be Kurt’s mother’, Love’s very honest account of their time together and her drug abuse, and Novoselic’s extreme pensiveness (who almost looks as if he is on the verge of tears at points). There are no interviews from Nirvana’s drummer and Foo Fighters’ frontman, Dave Grohl, however. An interview was filmed, apparently, but it was too late to include it in the final cut of the documentary. Director, Brett Morgen, has stated an interest in including Grohl’s interview eventually in another cut of the film, which may be in certain cinema versions or as a DVD extra. It may have been interesting to see the effect of Kurt’s drug abuse and reclusive nature on his band members and family, but this did not seem to be the intention of the documentary – it is instead focused solely on what made Cobain the way he was.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is, at once, very cool and extremely sad. As we watch humble and serene performances from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged show, earlier scenes of his troubled teen years and life with his addiction linger in our minds. Theories and conspiracies about why and how he killed himself are not delved into, which is completely refreshing as this is almost done to death with countless films, books and blogs dedicated to the topic. This documentary focuses more on his time spent alive – whether or not it is entirely celebratory of his life is something for you to decide.

★★★★★


Genre: Music, Documentary, Biopic Distributor:Universal Pictures UK Rating: 15 Release Date: 10th April 2015 (UK, Cinema) 27th April 2015 (UK DVD) Director:Brett Morgen