With Montage of Heck, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen faces an obstacle: how do you go about telling the story of a life which has already been told, exhaustively, by writers, the press, conspiracy theorists, band mates, even other filmmakers? The troubled, often turbulent life and subsequent death of Kurt Cobain has been thoroughly recorded in all its tragic detail during his rise to fame and even more so after his demise that it begs the question, why do we need to see any more?
That is not to say that Morgen doesn’t bring anything new to the table. After eight years of sifting through Cobain’s never-before-made-public journals, audio recordings, drawings and home videos, he paints a portrait of a man which is far more nuanced than what we have seen before. Musician, artist, husband, father, son, manic depressive, drug addict, we see it all. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable viewing. A scene where a gaunt and obviously out-of-it Cobain is holding his infant daughter on his lap while wife Courtney attempts to give her a haircut, in particular, is troubling.
Interviews with family members, band mate Krist Novoselic (Dave Grohl is notably credited but not included), Cobain’s ex-girlfriend and of course Courtney Love herself offer profound and wholly honest insight as well as some unexpected humour. Although often too brief (the interview with Kurt’s father, in particular, is cut very short), these are the parts of the film which feel the most necessary in their inclusion, and give the film its personality.
The depiction of Love throughout the whole thing feels truer than expected considering she authorized the making of the film, and set out to ‘put right’ the misconceptions and one-sided reports of the relationship which usually painted her in a harsh light, even as partly responsible for Cobain’s demise. Her use of heroin while pregnant is confessed to, and lingered on for a surprisingly long time. Her imperfections are exposed along with Kurt’s, but what is also made clear is the powerful and obvious love shared between them, with the strength of their union and mutual desire to start a family reiterated throughout. This is perhaps something which hasn’t been reputed to such an extent before.
The documentary mixes the interviews, home movies and recordings with rainy animated sequences of Cobain’s youth and his drawings quite literally brought to life. There’s certainly diversity in the presentation of the materials available, and it’s a stirring experience watching it, helped by the dynamic mix of Nirvana’s music which resonates. Looking at it objectively, it’s an extremely well-made and innovative piece of filmmaking. Morgen’s decision to end the film on a somber title card is abrupt, but appropriate; any commentary on Cobain’s death would be trashy, and not the film’s objective.
The film has been promoted as a ‘must-see for fans’, but for me, as a fan especially, it’s difficult to separate the documentary’s prowess from the gnawing feeling of unease that slowly builds while viewing. The film is so intrusive, so unabridged, that it feels as though the last lingering shred of Cobain’s privacy has been exploited… there’s nothing left to tell. His memory has been fully sold out, along with the publishing of his journals and Nirvana t-shirts in every high street shop. And I’m back to my original question…why did we need this?
Cobain: Montage of Heck is showing at selected cinemas.