Brett Morgen’s deft and fascinating documentary about America’s last true rock star is shot through with inevitability. But that never detracts from the raw emotional power of a film made up mostly of Kurt Cobain’s nakedly confessional journals and recordings. Whether it’s Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor talking about how “Kurt had to be born,” or his notebook scribbling “I hate myself and I want to die,” the film’s story can’t help but carry a mythic quality. That doesn’t mean that Morgen, working with the authorization of Cobain’s family, created a worshipful monument to genius. It’s true that to appreciate Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, it certainly helps to at least approve of a Nirvana song here and there. But this isn’t a fan’s valentine. At times it feels closer to hate mail from the artist himself.
The first inevitability was that Cobain would be a performer. He was born and raised in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. The home movie footage and interviews with Wendy show a beaming, towheaded kid who picked up a guitar early on and was always in the middle of some creative churn. His parents’ divorce when he was nine years old, though, curdled the fantasy of white-picket-fence security that he would spend the rest of his life chasing after and fighting against. After that, he became another sullen teen who didn’t fit in, hating the “phoney” nature of those around him like a working-class Holden Caulfield. The difference was that, for all of his dropout rebelliousness, Cobain’s will was always stiffened by solid dose of ambition. A recurring motiff throughout the film are the lists he made for himself. “He never had idle hands,” says friend and later bandmember Krist Novoselic.
The title of Morgen’s film comes from one of Cobain’s playful audio collages. It’s a typically self-deflating jab from the ever-conflicted musician who, like so many underground artists of the 1980s and ‘90s, couldn’t ever get over his deep suspicion of the industry that wanted to co-opt him. While the the film follows a chronological timeline, along the way it dives into the grit and muck of Cobain’s subconscious by way of visual and audio montages. Those busy hands generated boxes of content, drawings and paintings and lyrics and letters, for Morgen to sift through and stitch into the film’s jaggedly punchy narrative. They make for the bristling moments where Cobain’s obsessively repetitive and word-choked illustrations of monsters and dead babies are scored to various Nirvana songs; the splenetic vent of Nevermind’s “Territorial Pissings,” a roiling blast of hardcore punk, meshes perfectly with the audio-visual eruptions of his subconscious.
Morgen uses a small coterie of interviewees and a wealth of home movie footage to illustrate Cobain’s rise to hit-record popularity and his inability to cope with the success that he both craved and feared. That schizophrenic desire and fear, the want to be validated by a mainstream that he mostly despised, was one of those 1990s subculture-defining attributes that led to Cobain being labeled a spokesman for a generation. Just look at the Rolling Stone cover that Morgen shows from right when Nevermind’s chart-topping success was changing the rules of the music industry. Cobain is there with guitarist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (usually a great interview subject, sadly missing here), his slightly obscured T-shirt clearly reading: “Corporate magazine still sucks.” That’s the punk-loving Cobain making his stand against mainstream rock journalism. But he still agreed to be on the cover because, well, it’s Rolling Stone and he had a record to sell.
Eventually, the push-pull of Cobain’s oppositional viewpoints start slashing the film into a more raggedly temperamental and saddened viewpoint. The pressures of fame caught up with Cobain quickly, as did his agitation over the knives-out tabloid coverage of his post-riot grrrl wife Courtney Love. The damage wrought by his heroin use (which he apparently started using in an attempt to self-medicate his debilitating stomach problems) become clear in the home movie footage of Cobain and Love after their daughter Frances Bean was born. He hovers lovingly but sickly, with stick arms and a glaze over the sharp blue eyes that were always piercing out of the screen earlier in the film. “I hate myself and I want to die,” a notebook page reads.
The film’s arc keeps bending towards the inevitable tragedy. But Morgen resists the temptation to burnish his subject with grandiose declarations; there are no rock critics or fellow musicians here to opine on Cobain’s greatness. In that way, Morgen’s film shares an intimate sensibility with AJ Schnack’s beautiful 2006 documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, another rough-hewn but devastatingly personal portrait of loss. Morgen also manages the trick of letting his interviewees speak candidly about Cobain (some of Love’s admissions here about their drug use are devastating to hear) without making it into an assault on his memory. It makes for a haunting testament to a man who never wanted to be the spokesman for his generation, but may have been the last artist who could convincingly be defined as just that.