REVIEW: Cobain: Montage of Heck [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: TV-MA | Runtime: 145 minutes | Release Date: May 4th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Director(s): Brett Morgen
Writer(s): Brett Morgen

“You better buckle-up because you are not ready for this”

The mythos surrounding Kurt Cobain will never be contained. Revered the world over, his suicide at twenty-seven proved a devastating event in music and pop culture history—more so even than Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin whose deaths preceded him at that same age. Conspiracy theories have been set and quasi-biopics full of atmosphere and tone released to acclaim, but until now nothing has arrived with the blessing of those who knew him best. Unsurprisingly it was his widow Courtney Love who got the ball rolling by approaching director Brett Morgen with the project. Cobain’s family followed suit and for seven years the filmmaker dug through home videos, diaries, behind-the-scenes outtakes, and more to create a snapshot mixtape of the legend’s genius, despair, love, and art. As a result, Cobain: Montage of Heck proves raw and definitive.

It’s hard to refute stories and feelings straight from the source—although Melvins founding member Buzz Osborne continues to call 90% of the film “bullshit” anyway. He may have a point in saying Cobain was an unreliable narrator of his own life. Maybe the artist did fly into fanciful stories to put emotions on page rather than fact. Perhaps he also faked his stomach ailment for sympathy too. We’ll never know. His mother Wendy O’Connor, sister Kim, father Don, stepmother Jenny, ex-girlfriend Tracey Marander, and Love herself corroborating most of what’s on display, however, has to stand for something. It’s not like Kurt was ever forthcoming in sharing the meaning of his songs or private life with the press. He was a private, troubled soul who poured over his notebooks daily. There’s little reason to therefore doubt them.

Choosing to still does nothing to belittle the accomplishment of Morgen and his team. This thing isn’t just a talking head piece with people trying to place meaning where there isn’t or a bunch of attention-whores seeking to cash-in on the memory of the deceased. Everything begins and ends with primary source documents from Kurt that they and the director then comment on. A veritable timeline of insecurities, volatility, and creativity was left behind to contradict the media’s image or those predisposed to preconception. Morgen chooses to enter Kurt’s mind and bring it to life with the help of animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing. They rotoscope reenactments to illustrate the singer’s words, animate line doodles and comics, and add motion to the written page itself so we can watch the ink hit, get scribbled out, and highlighted.

The entirety of Cobain’s life is dissected from the marriage out of friendship rather than love of his parents to his ADHD transforming him into a terror made even worse upon their divorce. Everyone talks about his talent and drive, but also his inability to take criticism. Not solely painted as a delicate flower who retreated within when he felt he was humiliated, we see glimpses of rage. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic talks about this and Morgen plays it first-hand via letters written and phone calls made after a defaming article in Vanity Fair almost forced Kurt and Courtney to lose custody of their newborn daughter Frances Bean. He took the drugs—namely heroin—to lesson that pain, but it’s obvious they also exacerbated it. If only fatherhood could have changed him as much as he had hoped.

What really shines through the footage is Kurt’s genuine sense of fun. Despite tortured thoughts he’s almost never without a smile. A biting smile with journalists, it’s playful to those he held close. Call it a defense mechanism for his shyness if you want, watching him with Courtney and Frances by the end proves there was a genuine beacon of life too. He wanted a family and with them he began building one, but the scrutiny accompanying fame he never could embrace didn’t help as truth and lies became public record. You can’t blame his taking six months off after Nevermind hit big—just his actions during that hiatus. Possessed by enough humor to mock rumor and return to the stage in a wheelchair to “collapse” for the crowd is great, but it was again merely a shield.

We know this now thanks to his diaries’ uncensored reflections. Tales of past suicide attempts hardly surprise, evidence of poor self-esteem and -worth add up, and it looks more and more like his demise was inevitable. Love is quick to quote Kurt saying he wanted to make three million dollars and retire a junkie just as his mother recalls the warning at top after hearing Nevermind‘s brilliance, knowing its success would consume him. In hindsight we can label them all “signs” of what was coming, but then you look at him with Frances and witness a man who’d do anything to be there for her. Ultimately his life’s tragedy proves just that. Beyond any desire for conventional narrative ease, he simply had our same pressures but none of the anonymity. A sensitive genius, life sadly became too much.

Montage of Heck is less justification for this than celebration. Those involved, (Dave Grohl was interviewed after Morgen completed what would be his final cut), explain how lucky they were to have known him for the time they did. And alongside sad recollections comes the kinetic energy of live shows—which Kurt admitted his love for outweighed the negatives fame attached—infectious apathetic-tinged playfulness on the road, and songs great enough to endure. The same emotions that pushed him to the brink also flowed through pen, guitar, and voice to deliver anthems for a generation as lost as he was. It’s clichéd to say, but the majority of artistic legends often find what propels them forward to simultaneously become their destruction. Morgen shows that despite his ubiquity he was also just a man who’d had enough.

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