HBO's 'Montage of Heck' Humanizes Rock God Kurt Cobain
Montage of Heck the much-talked about documentary exploring the life of late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain premiering on HBO May 4 is an experimental exploration that delves deep into the psyche of a complex and creative genius. But it’s also at its core, a rock doc, filled with incredible music, from never-before-heard live versions of Nirvana classics, to unexpected covers (The Beatles “And I Love Her”) to weird and wonderful solo jams that reveal Cobain’s early songwriting process.
We had the chance to see the movie at the famed Cinerama Dome in Hollywood this weekend, where filmmaker Brett Morgen was on hand for a post-screening Q&A. Montage has some visually stunning moments that deserve a huge screen and when it comes to immersive surround sound, nothing beats the Dome.
Animated sequences are used as a visual device to show formative, often traumatic childhood moments, and even more effectively, Cobain at work putting together his provocative poetry, manic yet hook-filled soundscapes and hauntingly raw vocals. His music, like his mind, seemed a puzzle with an astounding array of pieces that didn’t fit until he made them do so. It’s compelling to see and hear how it all came together and learn about his outsider motivations as well.
The prolific artist’s own archives, including audio tapes, home movies, journals and drawings, provide the foundation for the film. Morgen was given access to pretty much everything the icon left behind and no one can accuse him of not utilizing the material. The singer’s own scribblings shed the biggest light here—even more than the interviews, which include Cobain’s mother, father, step-mother, sister, ex- girlfriend, Nirvana Bassist Krist Novoselic and widow Courtney Love. (At the Sundance premiere, Morgen said drummer Dave Grohl was interviewed late and did not make the cut for this reason, alluding that a future version might include him. We’re guessing the DVD release, which will be accompanied by a soundtrack release as well.)
All of the sit-downs have an awkward tension about them that’s hard to watch at times. We all know how this rock n’ roll fairy tale is going to end, and it’s not happily ever after, even when a beautiful baby comes into the picture. The pre-Love portion of the film, set mostly in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, might be its most revelatory. We learn about Cobain’s ADHD, the alienation he felt from his family, the severe stomach ailments that may or may not have fueled his visceral music and his eventual delving into drugs. It’s intense and dark, but it’s also fascinating. Would he have made the anguished art that spoke to a similarly disenfranchised generation had his life been different? The film never really attempts to answer and it doesn’t need to.
Kurt and Courtney’s relationship and heroin history near the end of his life has been well documented, but the period before that, when Nirvana started out playing house parties before rising to stardom hasn’t, at least not in such an expansive, behind-the-scenes way. Though some have suggested Morgen was doing Love’s bidding when he made the film, she doesn’t come off very well in it. She's always come off as an enabler for his substance abuse problems at best and a manipulator of his fragile mental state and eventual suicide at worst. Still, their mutual affection and unique bond is palpable here.
As Morgan said during the Q&A, “this is the first time you see Courtney through Kurt’s eyes. ” The footage of the pair and their daughter Frances Bean (some of which we saw in “Hit So Hard,” the documentary about Hole drummer Patty Schemel) is particularly bittersweet.
Frances, a visual artist in her own right, was co-producer of the film. She was not in attendance at The Arclight screening or talks, but she did make a much publicized appearance at the documentary’s premiere at the Egyptian, posing for pictures with her mother and the director. During a recent interview with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, Frances said of the film, “It's the closest thing to having Kurt tell his own story in his own words - by his own aesthetic, his own perception of the world." Though the goal was to humanize her dad, not romanticize him, we think Morgen and Montage manage to do both. It’s not always pretty, but as Cobain himself proved, the best art never is.