When it comes to Kurt Cobain as a person, there tend to be a lot of contradictions. There are even contradictions in writing about Kurt Cobain, as a lot of times it feels hard to write or say anything new about a guy that was seemingly everyone’s personal ’90s rock Jesus. And yet at the same time, it can often feel hard not to write about or compare or put things in the context of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s legacy, as evidenced by my recent review of a silly album that taken on its own has nothing to do with Cobain. But there in lies the challenge for a documentary like Montage of Heck, which attempts to peel away all the mystery and mythologizing of this figure that so many connected with on a personal level, and yet probably never felt like they could ever really get close enough to.
There’s a fairly radical approach to Montage of Heck, which isn’t too surprising considering the doc is helmed by director Brett Morgan, who made my favorite of the 30 For 30 documentaries, “June 17th, 1994”. That documentary was marked by the fact that it didn’t feature a single talking head interview or voice-over narration, and though Montage Of Heck does feature some interviews, they’re mostly kept to a minimal, and don’t really go far beyond Cobain’s family as well as bandmate Krist Noveselic. Instead, more often than not the film attempts to tell Kurt Cobain’s story seemingly through his own words, as Cobain’s journal entries inform a lot of the narrative, while these macabre pieces of animation are used to bring Cobain’s personal sketches and artwork to life.
Getting back to Kurt Cobain’s many contradictions, they seemingly started in childhood, as Cobain was a fairly typical child of divorce, just wanting to find a place to call home, but always lashing out and constantly rebelling when either parent would have him live with them for an extended period of time. To this end, the most surprising thing for me about the documentary was crystalized in one interview with Noveselic where he says “Kurt hated to be ridiculed. He haaaated it.” These themes of Cobain’s fear of shame and will to be loved are probably something you’d expect from a lot of massive entertainers that would do anything they could to reach the top, but it’s odd to hear it coming from a guy who was known for his “who gives a fuck”-ery. Also, due to Cobain’s childhood abandonment issues among a lot of other things, while watching this I had a hard time not drawing parallels between Cobain and John Lennon, sort of like the two are rock n’ roll’s Lincoln and Kennedy.
But what I think the documentary does best, due to the intimacy of the material used here, is its ability to bring us into Kurt Cobain’s troubled headspace. Granted, it doesn’t make for the funnest viewing experience, as Montage Of Heck for the most part is a “feel bad” movie, but I think it would have failed on its own terms if it wasn’t. Kurt Cobain clearly was a guy with a giant shroud of darkness hanging over him (though the film does show a few glimmers of his dark sense of humor that people tend to forget about), and it’s what gives the earlier childhood scenes an emotional sense of foreboding, and the home videos of Kurt and Courtney Love’s trainwreck of a marriage that much harder to watch. And for what it’s worth, despite being a documentary that was authorized by the Cobain estate, Montage Of Heck does a pretty even-handed job of not letting Courtney off the hook for further fueling Cobain’s heroin addiction.
Many have already hailed Montage Of Heck as the definitive Cobain documentary, and if there’s one thing I can fault it for, it’s that it might be trying a little too hard to earn this distinction. As a guy who’s always had a fascination with Nirvana for it’s impact on popular (and independent) music, I’m more than willing to pick the brain of the guy who was finally able to make punk mainstream. But at a certain point, the documentary’s overabundance of unedited home movies and over-reliance on trippy animation makes the doc’s 134 minute running time feel not entirely earned, and that some of this stuff might just be for die-hards. Still, as a guy who’s also always liked Nirvana less out of choice, but more just a fact born out of my rock-obsessed Northwest suburban upbringing, the movie does get to the heart of what made Cobain so alluring. His melancholy always seemed like something that could only be born out of the perpetual green/gray-ness that is Washington State, and yet he was just like any messed up kid from the middle of nowhere who just happened to find a profound way of expressing himself. Which again, isn’t anything we don’t already know about this ridiculously talked-about figure, but it helps remind us why we connected with the man, and not the myth, in the first place.