Earlier this month, my boyfriend and I had the pleasure of seeing Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck – a Kurt Cobain biopic at the lovely Everyman Cinema in Birmingham. Whilst the cinematic experience was paramount (read: a room full of sofas), we left feeling haunted and haggard. To the review…
To say that Montage Of Heck has been eagerly anticipated in the months leading up to it is easily an understatement. Word of the definitive Kurt Cobain documentary has been smeared all over music magazines, newspapers, glossy mags and Twitter. As with many a creation that is spun with hyperbole, it runs the risk of being blown all out of proportion and results in disappointment, however that Montage Of Heck was constructed from the inside immediately sets it apart; this is Cobain, pieced together, documented and scrutinised by his family, friends and lovers. When it comes to the Cult of Kurt, this is as unvarnished as it gets.
Constructed and directed by Brett Morgen with honorary co-executive production title going to Frances Bean Cobain – the daughter of Kurt and Hole front-woman Courtney Love – the documentary transitions between interviews, home footage and animated sequences to paint the picture of the iconic Nirvana frontman. With Love giving Morgen free reign of the family tapes, much of what we see is footage that has never been aired publicly before. It shows Cobain at his most intimate; as a happy toddler, a troubled adolescent, an infatuated lover and doting father, a drug addict…
Whilst a major premise of the film was to reveal more of Cobain’s childhood and what led to Nirvana, it is hard to dispel the importance of planting cracks in the cult and myth of Kurt. For those who were born in the late ’80s/early ’90s or even ’00s, Nirvana was the last iconic band, the last that revolutionised alternative music on such a large scale, the last truly enormous rock band in the MTV age. Once Montage Of Heck reaches the Nevermind era, it is difficult to remain ignorant of the media attention and the baying of the fans that came with it. Seeing the video to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ accompanied with an eerie interpretation only serves as an unnerving forewarning of what was to come.
Cobain had an extensive collection of recordings. His own voice serves as a narration of his life, overlaid by animated sequences, hand scrawled lyrics and drawings. In his being immortalised it is easy to forget that when Nevermind was released, Cobain was only 24, and it is petrifying to think of what it must have been like to have suddenly been propelled into the limelight. The youth of both he and Courtney Love is apparent at every moment in their home footage, their lashing out at press and their tribulations in raising their young daughter. Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous Vanity Fair article – in which she claimed Love admitted to using heroin during her pregnancy – is well documented here, along with its subsequent consequences and legal repercussions. It is only made more poignant in home footage of Frances’ first haircut in which a visibly gaunt Cobain holds her as Love trims her fringe. It is not confirmed that Cobain was high on drugs in this instance but the suggestion is certainly there, and his restless conduct makes for uncomfortable viewing.
To think this is a wholly full history of Cobain would to be mistaken; whilst his upbringing and mentality are conveyed like never before, there is no reference to his poignant relationship with Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail or Kathleen Hanna’s subsequent coining of “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”. Similarly, Montage Of Heck makes little reference to the details of Nirvana; whilst we are shown early lyrics from Cobain’s notebook, we are not treated to any writing or recording footage, with Morgen choosing to emphasise the physical and mental toll that being the world’s biggest band had on Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Whilst Novoselic is interviewed alongside Kurt’s family, ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander and Love, Grohl is absent (due to being interviewed too late in the process), but together they paint a picture of a man outside of the voyeuristic propensities of the press and the public.
That it is not a worshipping piece is commendable and, admittedly, a relief. Each selfish act, each introspective note, each memory from a family member or ex serves to further humanise Cobain and places his identity back into his own hands and away from that of the media and fans. With Montage Of Heck, Morgen and co. hold up a mirror to the viewer as if to say ‘This is the fallout of your voyeuristic infatuation: can you live with that?’ and ultimately, those who knew him serve to humanise him, and reclaim his life and history as his own in the process.
For further insight, I highly recommend Sophie Eggleton‘s series of interviews with Brett Morgen himself!