Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is still an intimate and captivating portrait of a complex individual
Even though it has been over 20 years since his untimely death, Kurt Cobain still remains one of the most popular and fascinating musicians of his (or any) generation. His life and death have both been the subject of several books and have also inspired a number of films, including the recent biographical documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.
Helmed by director Brett Morgen, the project serves as the first documentary about the singer made with the cooperation of his family. The film-makers were given access to the entirety of the Nirvana frontman’s personal archives which form the basis of the film. Footage from home movies, clips from live performances, audio snippets from Cobain’s recordings, and excerpts from his journals are meshed with recollections from his close friends and family members, including Cobain’s mother Wendy, sister Kim, father Don, stepmother Jenny, band mate Krist Novoselic, ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, and wife Courtney Love.
The documentary offers a glimpse into the tragically short life of the rock legend, chronicling events from his childhood till his suicide in 1994 at the age of 27. Montage of Heck paints a grim picture of a troubled young man, who was scarred as a child by his parents’ divorce, and then left struggling with feelings of rejection and abandonment after being shuffled back and forth between relatives in his adolescence. The film goes on to explore the effect of Nirvana’s sudden rise to fame on Cobain, as well as his drug abuse, marriage to Courtney Love, birth of their daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who was a co-executive producer on this film), and the infamous overdose in Rome a month prior to his death.
The result is an intimate portrait of a complex individual, delivered in a captivating, albeit uneven, biography. Cobain, once again, proves to be a riveting subject, explaining why interest in the singer has not waned in the last two decades. The highlight of the movie is the terrific archival material, especially the footage of the singer as a child which is in itself reason enough to watch the film. In its second half, though, the home recordings start feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, and might leave you wondering whether it was really necessary to share his private moments with the world and dredge up his past yet again.
It’s also a little disappointing that despite being invasive, the content is not particularly revelatory. There isn’t much Montage of Heck tells us that we didn’t already know. What the film says about Cobain will probably seem more remarkable to casual observers than fans, because if you’ve read the books and seen the films that preceded this, there isn’t anything in this documentary that will truly surprise you. You might also be left wondering how reliable some of the interviewees (Courtney Love in particular) are, and why the circumstances around Cobain’s death didn’t get a mention.
Still, the project on the whole is extremely compelling. The film is tonally and stylistically a triumph. It intriguingly sheds light on the many facets of Kurt Cobain’s life, and while its focus is a bit skewed and a little too selective, Montage of Heck does succeed in creating an interesting portrait of a talented but troubled individual whose music continues to resonate with listeners around the globe.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 18th, 2015.