Cobain: Montage of Heck
Forgive the tardiness. I know it’s hardly topical but today I watched Cobain: Montage of Heck…twice. I was full of nervous trepidation and wasn’t looking forward to it all. I have happy memories of Kurt. I just wasn’t ready for another upsetting trudge down memory lane. I thought I’d seen it all before, in great detail. I also didn’t really want to see Kurt’s life dragged up yet again, so my preferred option was not to watch it.
However, a friend bought me the DVD and made me watch it and now I’m glad I did. Brett Morgen had full access to the Cobain family archive. He skilfully and tastefully meshes Kurt’s diaries and notebooks, demo tapes, paintings, doodles, thoughts, lyrics and home video footage. It aligns and connects making a very original and unique music documentary.
I’d always felt that Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and poetry were exhilarating, cutting, enchanting and melancholic, beautiful and twisted. The way the film is put together, we get a chance to read even more of his work. His songs slapped and shocked and made you feel uneasy but exhilarated. By the third album, and songs like ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ we get into the realism of poetic genius. Robert Frost on cough syrup; fluidity and fragility, nature, death. This film is a visceral journey, we watch as the skinny stoner who is unpopular with his friends and unwanted by his family goes on to become an enduring icon.
I was surprised by the heft and weightiness of the movie. It has a proper arc, the pivotal moments, are all covered. The beautiful baby boy, happy, sweet, caring, inquisitive. Then the hyperactivity, Ritalin- a change in his eyes. Always in the eyes. That happiness seemed to go. Divorce of parents. Pot. The film Over the Edge, music, Krist Novoselic. The art, drawings, diary entries, aggression, punk, great art, brilliant drawings of cartoon characters, a more contorted glue-sniffing Robert Crumb, more aggression, ‘Floyd the Barber’, ‘Been a Son’, the detailed and fragmented mind of an artist; cut and paste. ‘Im threatened by ridicule’, stomach pains, heroin. His mother hears the master of Nevermind, and fears for him; tells him ‘you are not ready for this’. Big success; Courtney Love, heroin, fatherhood, uncomfortable footage when the sanest person is the baby child. Feelings of being violated, heroin, overdose, paranoia, heroin. End. I’m glad it ended where it did, no reading of the suicide note and the Seattle vigil.
I didn’t think I would like the animation of Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman but I did. In fact I loved the orchestrated versions of the songs – often set against orchestral renditions of Nirvana’s most famous hits. It added to the poignancy but also gave the movie something which Kurt would approve of, an almost Beatlesesque feel and quality. Admittedly, it would be a more hardcore punk version of Yellow Submarine but it added to rather than subtracted from the experience.
As Kurt was born in 1967, he’s probably one of the first ‘enduring icons’ to have his life chronicled in front of camcorders and home videos. This gives the film, despite the darker moments, a distinctive cinematic warmth. From growing up, to early rehearsals and gigs, we connect with both Kurt and the band struggling to make it, then their frustration when success comes their way.
I found myself upset at home video footage of the young Kurt, probably because you know what lay ahead. A few years later, he’s filmed playing houses with his sister. In this skit, Kurt comes homes from work as his sister irons his shirts. Kurt’s little skinny legs try to cross as he reads the paper and waits for his wife to get the dinner on the table. Irony as Kurt’s life would eventually be anything but 9 to 5.
Hopefully this film well serve as the definitive Kurt Cobain story and give us some sort of closure. I hope it’s time to let him be for a while at least. Negatives? If I’m being picky I would’ve liked more from Donald Cobain and I’m unsure of Courtney’s version of the Rome suicide attempt. I would’ve liked more on the band’s impact, how much of an influence they had on the music scene at the time. I’m glad I watched it. It was a poignant, well-paced music documentary which matched Kurt Cobain’s idiosyncratic take on his short and turbulent life.
(For those who don’t know, I toured with Nirvana in 1991 as drummer with the Scottish indie band Captain America when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ broke and at the pivotal moment everything changed for them. I wrote this book about it…)