More than anything else, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an affecting, often sympathetic document of the life of Kurt Cobain. It’s appropriately distanced, and steers clear of any deification of the late Nirvana singer/guitar player. Does it glorify him? It’s hard to answer for sure, without letting your own biases affect that judgment. This is the story of a sensitive, alienated person whose music that reaches out to a generation, making it to the very top of the pop world, when the isolation of fame, lifelong internal battles and heroin addiction propel him to take his own life — so how can it not? It’s inevitable. But really, the film is a warm reminder that he was human after all, not just this tortured, Shakespearian character in history.
Far too often, Montage of Heck is heartbreaking to watch. Morgen gains access to the bounty of Cobain material his wife, Courtney Love, has been hoarding (or treasuring) since his death in 1994, this being the first documentary made with his family’s cooperation. It’s been pieced together using unreleased songs, demos, rare home video recordings, audio and video footage of interviews, performances, journal entries, drawings, interviews with friends and family. It uses a linear narrative structure, from his jolly, hyperactive childhood to a broken home to international success to (almost) the end, ending, fittingly, with his failed suicide attempt a month before he actually killed himself. The musical belief that took Nirvana to unimaginable heights exists even in their early days, where they proudly believe playing a house party in front of two whole people is an actual “gig”. And, instead of adopting a straightforward voice-over format, a lot of the exposition and subtext is projected through Cobain’s own scribbled journal entries, in-progress lyrics and poems, cartoons and drawings, which are animated suggestively as a surrealist detailing of his inner deliberations.
And there are a lot of those. It’s no secret Cobain shuffled between extremes — from deep emotional anguish to insensitive rage, from crippling empathy to complete apathy — and that’s highlighted here comprehensively. One animated sequence shows a cartoon, teenaged Cobain hanging out with people he admits to hating in a monologue probably culled from an old interview, visiting a girl who’s heavy-set and “mentally retarded” — a term he’s loath to use — to steal her father’s booze, and it destroys him. Then, he tries to have sex with her. When people find out and mock him, he almost kills himself. On tour, a recurring stomach condition leads him to an extreme state of discomfort and resentment, but his profound love for Courtney Love shines through — in his writings, home videos they’d made, interviews — to the point of violent aggression and a siege mentality. The purity of emotion with the birth of his daughter, Frances, contrasted against absurd media speculation around parenthood and drug abuse, resonates particularly. By using Nirvana’s and Cobain’s back-catalogue, using minus one tracks of just an acoustic guitar or extended sections of songs from the original studio stems, Morgen keeps the narrative chugging. Added to that, an original score, interpretations of Nirvana songs, Cobain’s home-recorded musings, allow for a multiplicity of emotion that only stresses the turbulence (both negative and uplifting) that a person will experience, especially someone in the public eye. There are plenty of surprising absences — Dave Grohl being prime among them (because, forget the same room, Courtney Love and Grohl cannot even stand to be in the same film together, presumably), but it’s a narrow, intimate and cosy view that Morgen presents, choosing to focus his attention on old material and only a handful of interviews.
This bundle of contradictions also makes it a lot harder to conveniently typecast his story as one of rock ‘n’ roll tragedy. The art plays a significant role, of course, but it’s not merely the romance of art. Montage of Heck does a better job portraying this realism to the legend of Kurt Cobain than most books and films been made about him. For starters, there’s enough in there to infer that Cobain must have been a class A dick to be around, right from bullying his step- and half-siblings to an upsetting video towards the end: He’s walking around aimlessly, barely conscious, when Love calls him over to hold their daughter for her first haircut, telling him to keep it together in front of the baby. “I’m not on drugs,” he pleads angrily. He’s strung out on heroin and muttering intermittent nonsensities . It’s hard to watch, but the unconditional love he feels for the people close to him, and for the music, is reassuring in much the same way.