Everything that surrounds Kurt Cobain – the lexicon, the iconography, the mystery – has up until this point come to be nearly apocryphal. Since his death in 1994, Cobain has become more of a pop culture icon than he may have ever fathomed. He’s been eulogized and idolized the world over. His image is now seared so clearly into the face of not only his generation, but those that have followed and will soon come. What Brett Morgen crafts for his audience – in what may very well come to be known as the definitive documentary on the musician – with Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) is simply stunning. Morgen runs his coverage of Cobain from the cradle to the grave.
From his fractured childhood in Washington to the mind-bogglingly meteoric rise of Nirvana’s fame in 1991 to the rapid descent into denouement, its all covered here. But Morgen is no plain-Jane documentarian. His film is equal parts découpage, probe, nostalgia and recollection. In between fragments of commentary, there are montages of images of Cobain’s scrawlings, his voice whining and growling from a voice recording, maybe a caustic rock song turned up to 11 scoring the moment with bombast. Its a chaotic portrait but its focus is intent. He’s been able to gather a core group of people at the heart of the musicians’ world that deliver to viewers fresh revelations of the iconic star.
Morgen unspools Cobain’s life at a frenetic pace. It feels like a glorified art project at times but there is energy and compassion for the subject no matter what may be said. What works most effectively is that this is an atypical documentary. It honours the mania that lurked within Cobain by mirroring it onscreen. Being given access to the innermost workings of his mind through his art, writing, recordings and even home movies never feels too invasive although the viewer may get the feeling they’ve walked in on something too serious to handle. Even the darkest of moments – Cobain’s childhood of rejection, the critiques of his music or the press coverage of his drug usage and wife Courtney Love’s influence over him – never make any hasty conclusions. Its merely all there for the witnessing.
The interviews Morgen conducts have an eerily prophetic quality to them. This may be the very nature of the documentary interview but here words resonate. Family members speak of Cobain’s genius, of his isolation. Former band-mate Kris Novoselic talks of Cobain’s rage over being publicly humiliated in criticism. Love talks about how infatuated and in love she was with him. These are memories that float like spectres throughout the documentary. It’s the most beautiful form of nostalgia amidst a hurricane of grunge. What has been crafted is a memorial to a man. It is a demystification. With any luck, Morgen will be given his due credit for delivering to us – finally – a film that makes no judgements and takes no prisoners. Cobain: Montage of Heck is a blistering documentary and the only version of Cobain worth seeing.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem