Who is Kurt Cobain in the year 2015? Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which boasts access to a trove of new material, some of which includes interviews with those closest to the musician, supposes to answer the question of who Kurt Cobain “really” was. Instead, the film winds up answering the question just posed: who is he now, who has he become in the minds of those who knew him, and those who didn’t, some 20 years after his death? The cachet of this new appraisal comes from the exclusive access the filmmaker had to Kurt’s personal archive, as well as from the cooperation of many formerly combative or elusive friends and family, including Kurt’s Mom and Dad, Krist Novoselic, and, of course, Courtney Love. In order to measure the distance between who Kurt Cobain is to us now, and who he was when he died, back in 1994, it is instructive to compare the current film, so very authorized by Kurt’s family, with Nick Broomfield’s muckraking account of the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death, 1998’s Kurt and Courtney. Rewatching that film recalls the Kurt who was tabloid fodder, often portrayed as an equal victim of his own success and of Courtney Love’s supposedly predatory nature; unlike the Cobain of 2015, who is granted posthumous status as creative genius and social renegade, the Cobain of 1998 was yet another promising rock musician who tragically died young, done in by drugs, seedy hangers-on, and the pressures of success. While Kurt and Courtney is not a hatchet job, it does portray Courtney Love (honestly, in many ways) as the mover in the relationship, with Kurt as a kind of mute enigma, the voodoo doll on which the voluble Love practiced her dark magic. Montage of Heck serves as an important corrective to this vision; it reveals, through the archival materials, a more complex portrait of Cobain, and also a more nuanced, human one of Love. It is important to keep in mind while watching the current film that it is Love’s authorized version of events, and it is interesting to note that Love does take some responsibility for Cobain’s demise within. While Kurt and Courtney spends much of its time dealing with the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death, and Love’s possible role in it, it is also true that the earlier film has a larger cast of characters testifying to Cobain’s inherent depressive nature. That film becomes much more a whodunit, coming down eventually on the side of “Kurt, possibly with some pushing.” The pushing, in this earlier account, came from Love’s purported infidelity (with Billy Corgan, yuck) after which Cobain attempted suicide in Rome, and then succeeded in the States a few months later. Montage of Heck does not deal with conspiracies, and everyone treats Cobain in a more removed, psychiatric fashion, as a depressed, unhappy person for much of his life, who unsurprisingly killed himself. Interestingly, it is Love who raises the “pushing” theory in the current film, as she takes “responsibility” for Cobain’s death. (She claims she only thought of cheating on him, and Cobain intuited it, which was enough to send him into a profound depression. The context in which she wanted to cheat on him, and the actual details of the aftermath of the suicide attempt in Rome, up through his death in Washington, are never addressed by the filmmaker or Love). Why am I prattling on about this? Well, Kurt and Courtney were, at the time of Cobain’s death, wedded, both in fact and in the public’s mind, whereas now they are much less so, and there was a sense that when one spoke about who Kurt Cobain was, it was impossible to do so without Courtney Love. It feels much less the case in 2015, but if one is interested in the dynamics of the relationship, the two films, side by side, provide some opportunity for a comparative analysis (more of Love than Cobain, perhaps, as she is alive to bear forward her story).
I’m getting far afield of the film itself, though, as anything more than a vehicle for reminiscing, hero worship, or gossipy armchair psychoanalyzing. In tone and style, Montage of Heck is nothing new, or special. It sticks pretty close to the style of gently investigative documentary popular these days, and is also reminiscent of Jessica Yu’s seemingly influential 2004 doc about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. While the authorial voice is sometimes conspicuous in Montage of Heck, most of the story is told through interviews and archival footage. The film is comprised of four modes, or types of material: the “talking heads” (family and friends); archival video of concert performances, media reportage, and Kurt’s privately shot footage; animated reworkings of Kurt’s drawings, paintings, and objects; and longer, more “realistic” sequences of animation set to Kurt’s spoken autobiography. Of the four modes, the archival footage is the most powerful, and, indeed, comprises the most powerful section of the film, the middle in which the director builds the emotional power of the story to its peak by cutting back and forth between the private video footage of Cobain and Love’s home life with footage of their public one (sometimes music performances, sometimes interviews from the period). This part of the film not only reveals Cobain in close to full detail, warts and all, but also rehabilitates Love as the harpy hanger-on she is often seen as. Bearing in mind the material is selected, Love comes off as intelligent, witty, creative (if destructively so) and in love. Given the amount of archival footage one might guess exists based on hints within the film, if Morgan had stuck just with it, and crafted a documentary almost purely based around montage, he would likely have had extraordinary results. (For a blueprint of how to make this type of film, see Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack). Unfortunately, the rest of the modes are self-indulgent, border on the parasitic, and make you question the director’s taste (for instance, the deadly lame title sequence which juxtaposes Seattle punk with educational film footage from the 1950s and atomic bomb blasts). The worst offender in this regard are the animated sequences that feature Cobain’s drawings and other art animated and montaged to his music. Most of this stuff is fairly stupid and cliched, the kind of work you might find in any halfway thoughtful and disturbed teenager’s private notebooks. Perhaps the animations are cliched because Cobain’s drawings and art are cliched (many fetuses/broken dolls with staring eyes and holes in their heads, or Ed Roth style characters with exploding guts), but we the audience wouldn’t know, because in this mode, we cannot distinguish what is the artist’s original contribution, and what is the director’s. Yu’s work on Darger’s art in In the Realms of the Unreal is the first instance I know of where a fine artist’s work is animated for the screen, but it is a hideous trend. This way of dealing with material exists, one supposes, because the director is too insecure or timid to allow the art to speak for itself, the way it was intended – as a static image. By “jazzing up” the imagery to prevent boredom on our parts while simultaneously devaluing our intelligence, the director destroys the integrity of the original work, turning it into something that is far beyond the artist’s original intentions, while perverting the meaning. (Such stuff also smacks of the director trying to steal some of the artist’s thunder, parasitically repurposing the work into their own while also making it commercially appealing). When practiced on Darger, it is tone-deaf and idiotic, reducing the depravity and beauty of his world to twee weirdness. I would think, however, that Cobain would be appalled, as the film transforms his art from exercises in defiance, ugliness, and protest of a reductive culture into the kind of blitz spectacle, ready made for television, that our culture excels at. (Many of the sequences just repeat fragments of text written by Cobain in notebooks over and over again while the music blasts). It seriously leads me to question if the director understands Cobain’s viewpoint. Perhaps he is merely dim, but it comes off as though he is picking over Cobain’s corpse to masturbatory ends. Kurt and Courtney, by way of contrast, barely features any of Cobain’s art, but when it does, we see it in the right way: in the context of his ex Tracey Marander’s home, where it hangs on the wall, and we can take it in quietly. The other animated portions, which were parceled out to a variety of animators and set to Cobain’s spoken word reminiscences, are not as bad, but are far too literal. This overlong film (145 minutes) could have been edited down while enriching the end result by collapsing these two modes and eliminating the animated aspect all together. Why not use still images from Cobain’s archive of art with his spoken word material laid over the top? It would allow us to really see the work, to really hear his words, and further, it would tie the two together by way of chronology – the art would become the expression of the contemporaneous experiences Cobain is speaking of. Even if the director then chose to keep the film at two and a half hours, it would have allowed him much more time for further dipping into the archive, which we obviously barely get to sample. Instead, the director becomes stingy with the material while hitting us over the head with crass, loud displays of his “interpretive” prowess. (The talking heads are a mixed bag; Kurt’s mother, for instance, comes off as self-serving and revisionist, while his father seems anguished. Novoselic and Marander, who is also in Kurt and Courtney, seem to have the inside track on reality. As for Courtney Love, I will leave it for viewers to decide how sincere she is. Overall, there are far fewer interviews, and time devoted to interviews, than the promotional materials for the film suggest). While the ending is abrupt, almost purposefully so, the details of Cobain’s demise are fully chronicled elsewhere (notably in Broomfield’s film). It is a testament to Cobain (and to Courtney Love, it must be said) that despite the director’s meddling and simplification, there is still much of interest here, and much that feels fresh and new, as if we are finally seeing Kurt, for the first time, as himself. Even though we are left with a flawed portrait, it remains a compelling, if ultimately condescending, one.