DIR/WRI: Brett Morgen • PRO: Brett Morgen, Danielle Renfrew • DOP: Jim Whitaker, Nicole Hirsch Whitaker • ED: Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen • MUS: Jeff Danna • CAST: Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Courtney Love
There’s this peculiar thing that happens when generations begin to pile on one another. The terms ‘legacy’ and ‘notoriety’ become confused and interchangeable.
Montage of Heck is an attempt to clear up the mystique surrounding one of contemporary musics great enigmas – for better or worse. The narrative is compiled with home-movie footage, interviews with his family and friends and scribblings from Cobain’s notebooks that are effectively rendered into animation.
The Nirvana craze was still there in my teenage years, peetering slightly, but there nonetheless. The shockwaves of Kurt Cobain’s untimely death was still ringing true in the vacant abyss of teenage angst, with Nirvana continuing to provide a soundtrack to fill the void with moshpits and mayhem. Only in the last decade has it succumbed to the moniker of ‘retro’, if still a rousing and identifying musical summation of the ’90s. Now it seems to stand as a sidebar of the vaunted ’27 Club’; a rock star who shot his head off, with the sketchy girlfriend acting as the anchoring footnote. It’s almost a cliche. But, of course, every cliche’s origin lies in truth.
Cobain’s younger years in Montage of Heck paint a picture that even the more hardened of his fans may not be accustomed to. Here, the lack of documentation for his teenage years is dramatized with interpolated rotoscope animation (a la Scanner Darkly) that’s very well executed. We learn about a suicidal frisson he had with a Down Syndrome girl in his teens, he wanted to see what sex feels like before a failed attempt at his own life. The guilt and humiliation after this event is just one of the factors that contributed to the inner rage that characterized his legacy. As written by Cobain himself in one of his jarringly scattered and dense notebooks, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you”.
This film will inevitably compared to Nick Broomfields “Kurt and Cortney”, which obviously focused more on Cobain’s dysfunctional relationship with Love (pun not intended). That documentary seems like leery, tabloid guff compared to this iteration which, despite offering a more measured insight into the making of the artist, the most compelling aspect of Cobain’s life remains his relationship with Courtney Love, and (by association) his eventual demise. Montage of Heck is notable if only for Love offering a rare first hand account of their relationship, interviewed by the filmmaker, Brett Morgan. She appears about an hour in – chain-smoking, defiant and, as ever, wholly unsympathetic.
Other accounts from Cobain’s pre-Nirvana years tell about the chronic stomach pains he had to endure from the beginning of his heroin use. Tellingly, he refused to do anything about the bouts of pain for fear that they were the catalyst for his creativity.
A scene towards the end shows Cobain and Love giving their baby (now 22, her participation in the film conspicuously absent) her first hair cut. A pair of scissors circulates the toddlers head as her parents’ consciousness fluctuates in a heroine-inflicted haze. Singing unintelligibly whilst remaining in constant, adamant denial that they’re totally out of it. It’s a difficult scene to watch and one that drains a lot of the sympathy from Cobain’s predicament.
It doesn’t hold back, this documentary. It refuses to act as a shrine to a fallen icon, more a latent parable of the vicious upshots of success and the illusions that fame continues to perpetuate.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it – but I certainly would’ve watched another hour. Which is probably how Cobain would have wanted it.
16(See IFCO for details)
Cobain: Montage of Heck is released 10th April 2015