Since his violent, untimely death in 1994, Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, has existed as an ever present cultural icon of a generation. Renowned for his growling tones and visceral ‘spew it all out on the page’ lyrics, he was a flawed genius, becoming a symbol of rebellion and the punk rock scene, which was only enhanced with his final act. With every passing year, volume after volume of biographies are released on the ethereal image that remains, but few have successfully been able to define “Kurt Cobain”, the man behind the icon.
With the wonderful cooperation of the Cobain family – specifically executive producer and Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean – filmmaker Brett Morgen has gained exclusive access to never before seen volumes of Cobain’s life. From heartwarming home movies to haunting personal recordings, we are treated to a stark insight into his early years, the troubles of being a teen in Aberdeen, the formation and success of Nirvana, the infamous romance of Cobain and Courtney Love, and the arrival of his greatest creation, his daughter, Frances.
Morgen is more curator than director here, and the subtitle – Montage of Heck, taken from the title of some of Cobain’s early personal recordings – aptly describes Morgen’s approach to the film. It jumps between archival family footage, Nirvana concerts, visual representations of his notebooks and some stunning animated reenactments to accompany Cobain’s personal recordings. The result is a film that feels in sync with his mind; creative, erratic and often nightmarish.
We only escape when the film breaks out of it’s visual barrage to intersect interviews with those who knew the man. The intermittent slip into the traditional documentary Q&A does present both a blessing and a curse for the overall quality of Heck. To break the intensity and offer a human insight is essential, snapping us out of what could have been a never ending acid trip, but most importantly these segments allow us to make sense of the stimulus. The interviews with grief stricken Nirvana bass player, Krist Novoselic, make for emotional viewing and, more surprisingly, Courtney Love’s contribution offers a fascinating insight in to a relationship that, despite being well publicised, was never completely accurate, and she appears happy to speak on the subject despite previously resisting.
Problematically, the extent of interviews on top of the abundance of archival material Morgen had to work with, results in a run time in excess of two hours and there are some pacing issues here. It is however, a tough task to keep the film tight when you are spoiled with an abundance of riches on your subject, and whilst Morgen does glean past some areas, he does lay it all out on the table in others. There is always the temptation with such a popular figure to portray only the ‘good’, but the family’s agreement to show archival footage of a heroin induced Cobain holding daughter Frances, makes for chilling viewing; a dirty stain on the beautifully anarchic collage that surrounds it.
Morgen has done an exceptional job in creating as clear a window that we are ever likely to see in to the mind of such a mythic character. The interviews are insightful without being too invasive, the visuals are a fantastical blend of beauty and mania, and sonically it is a treat for any Nirvana fan, with samples of original tracks mixed with some incredible alternative versions of the bands biggest hits. Montage of Heck is as equally creative, nightmarish and iconic as its subject.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is out in cinemas now
Words > Sam Lawrence