Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is named for a mix tape the musician made in his misfit years, when he was spending days on end in his apartment scrapbooking a vision of himself. He would draw, scribble in journals, paste cutouts from magazines, play guitar, listen to his favorite bands, and write lists of the things he loved, hated, needed to do or looked forward to doing. These were private manifestos of rage and dreams and wishful thinking, cobbled together when he had no idea he would eventually become a rock star and the early years of his short life would be repeatedly scavenged for clues to his genius and his pain. Montage of Heck dredges up little new information despite the access granted to Cobain’s private life and the interview with his widow, Courtney Love. But for fans of Nirvana, it stands — for better or worse — as the only “authorized” documentary they’re likely to ever get.
Executive produced by Cobain’s daughter, Frances, and featuring, in addition to Love, approved interviews with his mother, father, stepmother, sister, early girlfriend, and band member and good friend Krist Novoselic, the movie proceeds with a sense of clarity and a notable absence of speculation. The director, Brett Morgen, seems to have been granted undiluted permission to comb Cobain’s intimate journals, and then to animate them, bringing them vividly to life with explosions of color and movement, and an eye-catching technique in which Cobain’s handwriting materializes on-screen. It’s startling and distracting in equal measure. Since most of what we can learn from Cobain is buried in those writings, Morgen overdoses on this effect, until we care more about the mechanics of the gimmick than we do the words appearing on the screen. Much of the film consists of these sequences, set to assaultive blasts of the band’s early music, and they have the effect of filling time rather than adding to any deeper understanding of Cobain’s songwriting talents.
The film does contain home movie footage of Kurt as a little boy, the happiest time of his life, before his father left the family and Kurt was shuttled in and out of relatives’ homes, basically rejected by many who were supposed to love him. There is also film of Kurt and Courtney at home with baby Frances, heart-rending scenes of a doting, playful Kurt clearly overjoyed at being a parent, yet struggling with the contradictory impulses of suicide. These contradictions emerge as Kurt’s most agonizing cross to bear. He wanted to be a rock star, but he hated the glaring spotlight of success; he did not want to shoot heroin, but the drug was the only thing that eased his chronic, debilitating stomach pain; he loved being a father, but he was wracked by the insecurities fostered in his own childhood. Ultimately, the film leaves one feeling that there is only so much one can learn from a very private, 27-year old man who was still grappling with forming an identity when he was traumatized by the sudden, head-spinning, superficial demands of worldwide fame.
Cobain’s life was a train wreck, but he was still a person worth caring about, notably humanized in both a previous, little-seen documentary, director AJ Schnack’s impressive, immersive About a Son (2006), which consisted entirely of audio interviews of Cobain laid over gorgeous, dynamic images of Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle, set to the early punk rock that influenced him; and in author Charles R. Cross’s excellent 2001 biography Heavier Than Heaven, a detailed and moving depiction of a boy from the rain-sodden Northwest, drowning in pain. Here’s hoping that Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, despite its flaws, will at least let the poor kid rest in peace.
This article appeared earlier on the author's blog, The Restless Critic.