What would Kurt Cobain think about someone else’s Kurt Cobain documentary? Obviously it wouldn’t exist as Brett Morgan’s new film–or any other of the attempts, for that matter–were the Generation X legend still alive. But a thorough, multimedia story would always exist because of how effusively artistic the Nirvana frontman was. What becomes acutely evident within the first moments of Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck is that it is a documentary about the most self-conscious documentarian of all time.
Culling material from a seemingly unlimited stockpile, Morgan weaves together Kurt’s biography in a truly impressive fashion. After footage of Nirvana’s infamous 1992 Reading Festival performance, we begin with his early childhood, seeing pictures of his birth certificate and home footage of hyperactive young boy with a mischievous smile. This dovetails into illustrated journal entries from his adolescence which in turn dovetail into artfully animated segments that use field recordings of Kurt as he captured musings and nascent, clipped versions of Nirvana tracks. Because Kurt’s artistic sensibilities are so diverse, Morgan makes you feel like this is the only responsible way to tell a story about the musician. The film’s namesake is an audio collage Cobain recorded while living with his first girlfriend that splices spoken word with gross visceral noises and snippets of classic songs by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and The Jackson 5. It is the kind of curio that perfectly captures the chronic thunderstorm that occupied the songwriter’s head. What was he possibly thinking about at any given time?
This brings me back to my original question. Of course, wondering what Cobain would think of his own documentary is inevitably fruitless, and potentially morose, but it’s compelling in its infinite open-endedness. Was he so concerned about his contentious media portrayals (the film also excavates plenty of critical articles and ad hominem polemics) that, perhaps, he would have at least preferred Morgan’s refracted, semi-autobiographical representations? Would Cobain have even trusted his own outdated journals, or would he have been mortified by the artifacts he left behind, like a contemporary 27-year-old blushing at his/her Facebook timeline from high school? Though I’d guess that he would simply detest the voyeuristic compulsion to dig up private missives to himself, there are no real answers to any of these questions.
Montage Of Heck makes a compelling argument about the act of documentation.
However, what becomes clear throughout the course of this intimate collection of family testimonials, illustrated journal sketches and animated segments of audio recordings is that he had to document himself. It was a compulsory delay tactic. Were it not for these 200 hours of audio recordings and 4,000 pages of journal entries, lists, and sketches, his inevitable implosion would have happened sooner.
Like a fruitless, retroactive plea, the specter of his impending mortality permeates every medium showcased. One of many early audio recordings reveals a young suicide attempt after Kurt could not bear the shame of having taken advantage of a mentally challenged young woman. He was a young teenager then and decided to sit on the tracks of on oncoming train that switched tracks as it approached. This unsettling subject emerges again when Kurt discusses crippling stomach pain that led to his first flirtation with heroin in 1987. We see a note about suicide as a viable way out, and then quick flashes of journal sketches that are more violent than before, his penmanship now an unruly scrawl.
“You see his art, and a lot of those messages are as plain as day,” says former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic somberly.
After the SXSW premiere for Montage Of Heck, Morgan took the stage at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin, TX, and fielded several questions from a generally impressed audience. After defensively answering a question about Dave Grohl’s absence from the film (it was a fair question), the director explained that he attempted to frame Kurt in the context of the family units of which he was a part and from which he was alienated throughout the course of his life. As the only “authorized” Kurt Cobain documentary in existence, this makes a lot of sense: Morgan interviewed a small pool of people whom Kurt considered family at one point in his short life including his parents and his wife. Kurt and Courtney’s daughter Frances Bean served as an executive producer for the film. There are parallels in the narrative that represent the full circle of Cobain running away from his family to create his own–different versions of “All Apologies” play during analogous montages of both Kurt’s and Frances’s respective baby footage (I cried a little bit during these moments because I am a sucker). Both Kurt and Courtney vocalize their desire to start a family of their own because they were fugitives from broken homes.
No matter what you hypothesize about Kurt Cobain, the impossibly hypercritical luminary beat us all to it.
Family is a central in Morgan’s film, sure, but I would not confidently say that is what this film is about. Trying to find a single overarching conceit about Cobain’s life by soldering together these multifarious mediums of his art is an exercise in futility. You can extrapolate virtually anything you want from Cobain’s life because everything you would ever want to know or think about him already exists in the form of a primary source. No matter what you hypothesize about Kurt Cobain, the impossibly hypercritical luminary beat us all to it.
In this way, Montage Of Heck makes an exceptionally compelling argument about the act of documentation in the form of the people and artifacts we leave behind: they are not us, and they never were. And though we might be able to ply and influence either for a short time, a time comes when will they no longer conform to our wills.
So what would Kurt Cobain think about someone else’s Kurt Cobain documentary? In his own words: “There is nothing I can say that I haven’t thought before.”
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck premieres tonight on HBO at 9:00 pm ET/PST.