Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck cuts through all the noise that’s surrounded Nirvana in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, though, ironically, noise was a major reason people first turned onto Nirvana. Following a few line-up changes in the band, the final trio of Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic’s anarchic post-punk unleashed a plethora of mangled yet intensely catchy hooks that made them a favorite on both mainstream and alternative radio. Nirvana’s sound married Motorhead with The Beatles, with hints of The Wipers, Flipper, The Velvet Underground, and The Vaselines, among a slew of other influences. The impact of Nirvana and Cobain as a songwriter on pop music is impossible to overstate, but that’s not exactly what Morgen is getting at in Montage of Heck.
Instead, Morgen seeks to chart the growth of Cobain as a young man and artist growing up in America’s more poverty-stricken pockets. Morgen employs a variety of animation styles, along with talking-head interviews, home movies, television footage, taped concerts, and audio recordings, to bring Cobain’s inventiveness and inner emotional landscape to vibrant, haunting life. Certain die-hards have no doubt seen a portion of the footage that Morgen employs, but it’s in the way the writer-director assembles and rolls out all of this information that makes Montage of Heck register as the most revelatory and intimate filmic take on Cobain and his legacy to date.
This is not to say, however, that the other films and filmed documents based on Cobain and Nirvana do not add a sense of detail to the musician’s towering mythology. With Montage of Heck nearing its HBO premiere date, I decided to take a look at the films and television events that have documented the astounding stage presence and pop-song radicalism of Nirvana or attempted to demonstrate the breadth of Nirvana’s influence and Cobain’s tragic exit from this world. None of these films quite reach the level of hypnotic fascination and staggering empathy that Morgen does, but they nevertheless offer shading to an ever-evolving portrait of one of rock & roll’s great innovators and the most ambitious and brilliant songwriter that the 1990s had the pleasure of producing.
MTV Unplugged in New York (1993):
The transformation of MTV from a network where one could view music videos and a robust line of original scripted programming to a repository for grim, laughably self-serious melodramas and the most morally reprehensible kind of reality television may never hit as hard as when you realize that they produced and aired this exquisite, haunting concert film in their salad days. The banter in between the songs proved just as revealing as the song choices, which include two Meat Puppets covers and a take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” The crowning achievement, however, is Cobain’s concluding rendition of Lead Belly’s immortal “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Watching the special on a friend’s tape years later, the close up of Cobain belting out that last “shiver” in his cracked, exasperated tone cut me to the bone and hasn’t lost its power in subsequent years.
Kurt & Courtney (1998):
Nick Broomfield is…problematic. The infamously confrontational documentarian has had a long streak of making films on major subjects and somehow making the films more about his “courage” and fearless journalistic spirit than the actual story he’s apparently investigating. This is just as true of Kurt & Courtney, wherein Broomfield toils over the hugely disputable, more than mildly offensive theory that Courtney Love was behind her husband’s suicide. As misguided as the core of Broomfield’s perspective is, Kurt & Courtney does give a palpable sense of the kind of obsession Cobain’s death has bred over the years, and the depths of journalistic intrigue that are legitimized in the hopes of finding relatable reasons for such a tragedy.
Last Days (2005):
If anyone were to give Kurt Cobain the biopic treatment, Gus Van Sant would likely lead the list of acceptable directors to helm such a project. Last Days isn’t technically about Cobain, but both the wardrobe and overall design of Michael Pitt’s Blake, from his moppish strands of chin-length blonde hair to the lazy-Sunday-everyday wardrobe, are clearly indebted to the songwriter. Then there’s the fact that the film is centered on the last 24-or-so hours of Blake’s life before he commits suicide, an act, in the film, that brings out Van Sant’s sentimental side in a final metaphysical twist. Van Sant is a cinematic portrait artist of morally confused teens and post-adolescents, and he depicts Blake’s mansion as a mammoth junkie’s den with Velvet Underground tunes and blasts of experimental noise rock constantly echoing throughout. It’s a supposition, lined with fictional variations on Cobain’s own final hours, but the film takes an insightful look at how drugs calm and liberate the inner self but have a tendency to slow the lively pulse of the physical world to a barely negligible, intermittent thump. In fact, often enough, it silences pulses altogether.
Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2006):
A.J. Schnack’s lovely documentary is centered around audio, namely the interviews that music journalist Michael Azerrad conducted with Kurt Cobain before his death. Azerrad uncovers a trove of anecdotes and information, all the more interesting in hearing how Cobain chooses to word and describe his life experiences. Nevertheless, Schnack’s film is most remarkable for the tender way the director shoots Washington with total clarity and attention to Cobain’s old haunts around the state. The Nirvana frontman was born in Aberdeen and lived most his life in Seattle, and Schnack evokes a deep love for the state in his shots of local residents of the state, shops, homes, buildings, and public spaces. In doing so, the director depicts a state absent of Cobain but still thriving, much like the influence of Nirvana and Cobain’s legacy in pop music as a unique singer with a distinctly American perspective in his sharp yet frenzied songwriting.
Nirvana: Live at Reading (1992/2009):
What originally drew so many music lovers to Nirvana were their notoriously energetic and destructive live shows, the ones that made “Love Buzz” a small but notable hit and helped get Bleach recorded. Somehow, Nirvana didn’t lose a modicum of their on-stage ferocity, and by most standards, they were never so legendary for their blistering sets as when they headlined the Reading Festival in 1992. Shredding through Nevermind staples “Breed” and “Drain You” as well as early jams like “School” and “Negative Creep,” the show was a favored bootleg, available at flea markets and college campuses worldwide, for years before the entire set got an official DVD release in 2009. Like the band itself, the Reading concert might have lost some scene points in going from underground cult item to Best Buy shelf stocker but the power of what’s captured in its runtime transcends its mode completely.