It’s frustrating to sit down for a documentary about an artist and find a product only interested in repeating the conventional wisdom. We’ve had a run of these about bands and musicians lately. No matter the level of access, authorized or unauthorized status, or the good intentions of the filmmakers, it’s total boredom to find a film ostensibly about a musician’s life content to repeat the highlights like some Behind the Music episode masquerading as cinema. I don’t want to see one more stuffy procession of talking heads and overfamiliar archival footage reinforcing the brand’s public persona, all the while assuring fans “this music meant something, man,” without digging into what actually made the work under consideration special.
Luckily, documentarian Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck isn't that. It decides to strip out grand pronouncements and even some basic context to get a two-hour psychological portrait of the man in question. If you show up to the movie without even a vague understanding of Cobain’s career and public image – fronting seminal rock band Nirvana, hitting it big with the 1991 album Nevermind, marrying fellow grunge icon Courtney Love, and dying at age 27 – you could be a little lost in the movie’s largely present-tense collage of sound and image. Morgen had access to home movies, concert footage, interviews, cassette tapes of Cobain’s early sound experiments, press clippings, and notebooks full of doodles and lyrics. Out of this material he paints a picture of the inside of Cobain’s head, energetic and troubled.
In doing so, he keeps the focus on the man behind the icon. Candid interviews step outside the interiority with Cobain’s mother, father, stepmother, friends, exes, and Love, who reveal intimate details of an energetic, curious, artistic troublemaker. Casual footage of a kid growing up in the 70s mix with recounted childhood memories of hyperactive disorders that gave way to moody teen years. In a moving flourish, Morgen provides animated recreations of Cobain’s disaffected, depressed, frustrated rebellious teen years, narrated beyond the grave by an archival interview and scored with a plaintive instrumental strings-heavy “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By the time Nirvana emerges fully formed, the kid, now in his twenties, has managed to channel his punk rage into punk rock, grungy guitars smashing into the mix of score and oldies on the soundtrack, hammering home the revelation the band was to culture at the time.
There’s little to no room for analysis of the band’s sound, explanation of contracts and practice sessions, studio time, music video sets, or Billboard charts. Those images fly by in a swirl, background noise to the story of a young man whose sudden success gets him better drugs, and bigger insecurities. Montage of Heck rattles impressionistically along a sadly familiar rise-and-fall pattern that brings a talented individual great success and greater access to his fatal flaws. All the while, we can hear how effectively he channeled inner pain into catchy rock. Played loud, the movie is melancholy exuberance, the speakers booming with now-classic high-energy songs – like “Come as You Are” and “All Apologies” – while we see an increasingly gaunt Cobain slump away into addiction. The footage is at times uncomfortably intimate, unsparing in disquieting candor. We see rollicking concerts, but also a man slipping into heroin while his baby burbles nearby.
Morgen’s greatest accomplishment is recognizing comprehensive, extensively reported biography is the realm of books. To make nonfiction film about public figures is not to dryly bombard with only facts, but to generate an experience that captures something of their essence. In Montage of Heck, the raw material of Cobain’s creative output is mashed up into a dizzying – tiresome, at times – two hour firehose of sound and image. (Morgen’s skilled at evoking immediacy through old footage, like in other great docs, the visceral Chicago 10 and hypnotic June 17th, 1994.) The film is fast, freewheeling, prone to flights of visual fancy, a sustained exposure to an approximation of one man’s mind. One can see what made him an artist, see what hurt him, and see his tortured propensity for damaging behavior. It is not the ultimate, definitive word on his life. But it is an involving, immediate, evocative exercise in mental archeology, digging up some empathetic, heartbreaking, and troubling conclusions about what it must’ve been like to be Kurt Cobain.