[This is a re-post of my Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm ET/PT.]
The genesis of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the first authorized documentary about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, was Cobain’s wife Courtney Love saying to writer/director Brett Morgen, “Go through my private storage, make a movie; I’ll see it when you’re done.” The result is an intimate and unprecedented look at Cobain’s life through never-before-seen home movies, journal entries, original art, and even recordings. The film is an explosion of mixed media creativity as it presents Cobain’s work and life through various animatics, voice-overs, and even a couple of animated sequences, interspersed with on-camera interviews with those who were close to Cobain throughout his life—including his mother, father, step-mother, and sister. While the film is a tad long and may not hold the attention of the casual fan, this unflinching deep dive into Cobain’s psyche is sure to touch anyone who felt a genuine connection with the singer before his death.
Montage of Heck begins with an extended section on Cobain’s childhood and upbringing in Aberdeen, Washington. Through home movies we see a happy, hyper young boy as Cobain’s mother Elizabeth and father Donald discuss the early joys of having the child, then the difficulty of raising someone who was constantly on the move, always wired. When Cobain’s parents split, his mother felt she couldn’t handle him and sent him to live with his father, who subsequently found a new wife and family, pitting Cobain as the outlier. This feeling of abandonment lead Kurt to become more and more withdrawn, prone to acting out.
Cobain’s teenage years were rough. He was constantly passed around the family—from father to grandparents back to father—and thus lacked any semblance of normality or consistency. Who wouldn’t feel unwanted when every single person in your family thinks you’re too much to deal with, passing you around like a needy dog?
Cobain acted out, and through an extended animated sequence drawn from Cobain’s journals, we hear his first-person thoughts on this period in his life, describing a sequence of events that lead to him attempting to have sex with a mentally challenged woman, and his first ill-conceived suicide attempt on a stretch of train tracks. It’s haunting to hear about these things in Cobain’s own words, but it provides a path to better understanding Kurt as a person. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic says the warning signs for Kurt’s unhappiness were right there in his art, and it’s clear from his journal entries that he had a hard time reconciling that feeling of being discarded by his family during his adolescence.
Montage of Heck doesn’t attempt to paint a hagiographic portrait of Cobain. Instead, it’s more about understanding his depression. The film first touches on his heroin use during his late teens in Washington, just as Nirvana was beginning to form. He’s portrayed as neither a saint nor devil, simply as a human being with flaws, plagued by bouts of deep sadness and unhappiness in between doing what he truly loved: making music.
The Nirvana section of the film is fascinating in that it makes clear how uncomfortable Cobain and his bandmates were with their fame, but it’s also obvious that Cobain wanted his music to be heard. Becoming famous was a double-edged sword, and in old footage Cobain is wholly uninterested in taking part in interviews where he’s expected to pontificate on his own work. He’d rather the music speak for itself.
On top of the pressure of fame, Cobain was also experiencing chronic, severe stomach issues that were never fully diagnosed, leading to his self-described “self-medication” with marijuana and, later, heroin. In journal entries, Cobain writes of the excruciating pain he endures due to these stomach problems, saying more than once that he’d rather die than live with the pain. But he also expressed doubt about whether he’d be as creatively successful if his stomach issues were to be cured. He feared the pain was what fueled his artistic drive.
The most enlightening section of the film, though, is the one involving Courtney Love. The Hole frontwoman quickly gained a controversial reputation when she became romantically involved with Kurt, as many fans blamed her for pulling him further and further into a drug-filled haze. From home movie footage, however, it’s clear that Kurt truly loved Courtney. The two are seen multiple times mocking reports in magazines of their “toxic” relationship, and though the film doesn’t hide the fact that they did spend much of their time together doing drugs (Courtney admits Kurt told her he wanted to reach $3 million and then just become a junkie full-time), there’s also a lot of love between the two.
This home movie footage paints Love in a fairly new light, and I personally came away a bit more sympathetic to the pair’s relationship. It’s still unsettling to see Cobain nodding off while holding their newborn daughter Francis Bean Cobain, but the guy genuinely loved and treasured his family, and aimed for Francis to have a better home life than he did. He desperately wanted to build a family of his own. And through his diary, we also see that Cobain was fully aware of his drug problem and genuinely wished to be clean, drawing doodles and writing the words “junkie” over and over again.
Montage of Heck ends just before Cobain’s suicide, opting to cover his death with a simple title card. While those looking for something more in the vein of an all-inclusive biopic may find this disappointing, it’s clear that the film’s focus is more on understanding who Cobain was and what fueled him, rather than providing an event-by-event overview of his life. Some of the animatic sequences go on too long, and I started to feel the film’s two hour and 15 minute runtime as it does drag in parts, but it’s never uninteresting.
Noticeably absent from the interview footage, though, is Dave Grohl. It’s unclear whether the production even approached him or if he simply declined, but Love’s involvement with the documentary may have something to do with it. That said, his voice is one that would have been invaluable to the film, as it feels a tad incomplete when you’ve got everyone from Kris to Courtney to Cobain’s stepmother and don’t have the last third of his band—one of the few people that was with him every step of the way as Nirvana become a global phenomenon—offering his thoughts on their time together.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is not going to be for everyone. It’s impossible to encapsulate the entire life of a man like Cobain into one film, and the movie doesn’t try to. But Montage of Heck comes about as close as we’re going to get to being inside Cobain’s mind, and as a result offers a better understanding of his thought process and emotional state. It’s at once a celebration of a creative genius and a deeply involved portrait of depression. It’s loud, rough, sad, funny, aggressive, and loving. Just like Kurt.