Cobain: Montage of Heck is written and directed by Brett Morgan, a master chef, a demented meal maker whose main dish is sure to provoke emotional disturbance all around the world, because this documentary is filled with startling pungent images from start to finish.
We all know the story, but like so many legends before it, Kurt Cobain’s life is a tale forever simplified for mass consumption. Montage of Heck (the title is taken from a 1988 sound collage created by a teenage Kurt on a four track tape machine), is a movie as single-minded as its subject. Montage of Heck’s mission statement is undoubtedly obsessed with the elongation of the media’s narrative, determined to fill in the blank spots on the Kurt Cobain menu using private journals and unseen 8mm footage. Sure, you may know the basic ingredients; troubled youth; meteoric musical acclaim; drug issues which span out into the shotgun-passport to club twenty seven. But what you don’t know is delivered via the dark psychedelic animation of American film maker Stefan Nadelman and sometime Dutch painter, Hisko Hulsing. With Brett Morgan’s direction, our understanding of Kurt’s psychology is given literal form; diary entries scrawled across the silver screen; stock footage of fifties family values interspersed with a cartoon Kurt walking from home to home; aggressive childhood fantasies escaping notebook pages, marauding toward us like the misshapen avatars of his anger. It’s all too much to take in. That’s the point. We are afforded the hyper-sensitivity of Kurt, cornered, forced to answer the film maker’s monstrous question: How does a child process the D word? In Kurt’s case, badly.
Through previously unseen home video, we watch how every year a young child is taught that he’ll forever possess the attention of adults holding camera’s, always on hand to reward his exploits with a zoom in here, a piece of birthday cake there. A son, or rather a sun, playing happily in a circle of grinning people, honest guardians always in orbit. Always together. Always family.
Till the D word.
The writing’s on the wall when Wendy admits she confused liking someone for loving them, that marriage was expected of her and thus one of a two-step goal; motherhood following the other without much thought as to the bedrock of fruitful wedlock. Kurt desperately, wantonly, and in the words of bandmate Krist Novoselic (here, notably on the verge of crying), wanted to be accepted. Naturally he formed a band, his surrogate family.
The film employs twinkling xylophones during its first section. Sweet renditions of your favourite Nirvana hits pepper Kurt’s running around in a Batman suit. Later on, the instrument of innocence is replaced by frenetic live show recordings and warped versions of the studio based material. Indeed, when the backing track to ‘Territorial Pissings’ has faded away, when we’ve been left with the bawling pain of Kurt’s shredded vocals, we know for sure how much of a harrowing ride we’ve signed up for. The easy Google-brained, encyclopedic filing away of who he was and how he died will be nigh on impossible once the credits roll. This film is hell-bent on reawakening all that loss.
Listening to echoed ramblings of Kurt as a teen is endearing and disconcerting, although, it’s hard to feel wholeheartedly voyeuristic considering one of the executive producer’s being the twenty two year old Frances Bean Cobain (by all accounts, a passionate artist herself determined to present a more accurate depiction of St Cobain to his worshippers).
One of Cobain’s several audio recordings describe him joining a gang who routinely stole drugs from a disabled girl. His frank confessional goes on to cite the girl as an early (perhaps first) sexual experience, and as he tells his story it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable as he unflinchingly casts himself as a pathetic whiny teen whose attempt to make sense of his warped 8mm film life is futile. A lackluster attempt at death on a railway track is thwarted by sheer chance than a last minute refusal to die. This is a horror movie. Didn’t you know?
A chilling moment comes with a choir who sing the nonsense lyrics of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ the voices juxtaposed with a swirling montage of blooper reel from the music video. Given the carmine and flickering flame tint of images, it would be naïve to ignore the perhaps overstated portentous thematic embellishment. Thankfully, lines from Dante’s Inferno don’t streak across the camera, but the view is littered with so much code posing as detritus that literal descriptions of hellish descent might have been displayed. Such is the intensity of the visual and aural attack. Again, this is Morgan’s successful attempt at splicing us into Kurt’s head, or at least the Kurt he’s gleaned from private materials.
There are some moments of relief. The courtship of Courtney Love, the arrival of daughter Frances; the many moments where the threesome play in front of the video camera. The entirety of the cinema laughed out loud when Kurt and Courtney openly mocked the tabloid versions of themselves. A commune in the dark of the future gleaning perverse pleasure from a double act of the past. A Punch and Judy show of gross caricature and knowing wit. Ever thought you’d see Kurt film Courtney as he kisses her passionately? In a pre-internet age? Never.
For twenty somethings, for those about to hit forty, this film’s attentive character study will inform your perception of Kurt Cobain’s inner workings like never before. One of the most important contributors of latter twentieth century pop culture is at last afforded a certain prize, a present previously monopolised by Michael Jackson’s mythology: he is a boy who thought he could heal the wounds of childhood sadness by singing songs other people felt compelled to embrace as their own. Even in the film’s final moments, where camera footage explicitly chronicles the weight-loss and bad skin, it’s impossible to see his ghoulish features as a real person. You only see the boy beneath, the wide-eyed full of energy kid, always keen to play up to his friend the camera, a device he would learn wasn’t his friend at all. At least that’s what this latest remix of his personality tells us.
Like ‘In Utero’ before it, Cobain: Montage of Heck is essential viewing, a tour de force designed to linger in the mind; like the favorite dish you’d want your parents to make, regardless of the time, be it day or night.