Movies: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

I was close to graduating from high school when Kurt Cobain died, and the whole of my reaction to the news was, "Oh. That guy."

Grunge, punk, and metal were not my things, I couldn't identify with those particular feelings*, but in those days one couldn't go very far without hearing something by Nirvana, so I had a passing familiarity with their music. And mostly knew Cobain from t-shirts worn by my classmates.

His is the kind of story that seems made for media: the troubled childhood, the health problems, the superstardom, the eventual crash (weirdly tempered by a semi-happy family life), capped by suicide.

I went into Montage of Heck knowing almost nothing about Cobain except (a) he'd been lead singer and songwriter for Nirvana, (b) he'd married Courtney Love and they'd had a daughter, and (c) he'd killed himself. I probably suspected the drug thing but I'm suspicious by nature and in my experience musicians have bad habits, so I could have been wrong. But I guess I wasn't.

The documentary isn't as cohesive as something more formal, or maybe a biopic, would be. Writer/director Brett Morgen was able to get friends and family members to talk about Cobain, but there's a distinct sense of each of them having created their own narrative, and so I was actively wondering how much of what I was being told was true. Also, any time something is labeled as "authorized," I sort of cock an eye at it; when something gets the official stamp of approval, there's at the very least a bias, and at worst an agenda.

For visuals, besides people sitting on couches, there is a lot of old home videos, and then TV interview clips, and many, many shots of Cobain's journals, his scrawling thoughts, which is the closest we can come now to him speaking for himself. There is also interstitial animation reminiscent of Pink Floyd's The Wall; in fact, Morgen himself stated Montage of Heck would become this generations' The Wall, so the parallel is deliberate.

It was an interesting film, if a bit long; some of the archival footage could have been better edited. And it ends with Cobain's coma in Rome, at which point Courtney Love tells the camera that she'd thought of cheating but hadn't, yet Kurt had apparently known this in some psychic way, hinting that his overdose and the resulting coma was his response to this knowledge. The final legend over a black screen remarks that a month after the incident in Rome, Cobain killed himself. No need, perhaps, to hash that out again since it's so well known. Or maybe the family and friends just didn't want to talk about that part. But the result is an odd juxtaposition that almost draws one to the conclusion Cobain's suicide was Courtney Love's fault, if only because it pulls through the notion that the suicide was a continuation—and full stop—of what happened in Rome. Just sort of bizarre, but then the whole documentary is a bit bizarre. But at the same time, it's the kind of film that does stick with you. It makes an impression.

If anything, I'll have Nirvana stuck in my head for a few days. And I wasn't even a fan.

*For me, and probably for many people, I tend to like music that speaks to my experience or my feelings. Thanks to a pretty happy childhood, the whole anger/rebellion music scene didn't work for me. Guess I've had a "pop/rock" life. (Yes, I realize this makes me supremely uninteresting and there will never be books or movies about me. Sigh.)

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