Logline: Documentarian Brett Morgen explores the inner and outer life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
How do you make a film about a man whose music and persona defined a generation? How do you find the visual and audio vocabulary to capture the inherent pain, suffering, and genius of Kurt Cobain? The answer: have the man’s art do all the talking. Indeed, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—which has been labeled the “official” documentary of Kurt Cobain—is almost literally just that: a montage of chaotic, hellish, depressing, and melancholic art. Granted, director Brett Morgen employs all the elements one would expect in a documentary: talking head interviews, archival footage, and other primary documents and photographs. However, Morgen is primarily interested in an expressionistic interpretation of the man’s life. Morgen sets out to both deconstruct the myth of Nirvana’s leading man and validate him as a one-of-a-kind artist and icon, focusing on (and even reinterpreting) the man’s diary entries, art, poems, and—of course—songs.
Naturally, the film begins with Cobain’s early life in Aberdeen, Washington, with plenty of never-before-seen home video footage of him and interviews of his family and friends. But this film is not necessarily a linear narrative. Again, Morgen doesn’t care so much about telling the story by the facts of Cobain’s life story. Instead, the film explores the inner soul of the artist. Often Cobain’s diary entries and drawings are animated to one of Nirvana’s songs, or a simple recording of Cobain retelling an event in his life is coupled with a rotoscoped animated interpretation of that event. The art tells most of the story, some of which fans of Nirvana and Cobain already know. These instances are the most enriching for fans as they further immortalize Cobain as an icon. However, other sequences also reveal some disturbing truths from his life.
One of the most unsettling elements is the collection of video recordings of Kurt and Courtney and their newly born daughter Frances Bean. As a fan, I was already familiar with Kurt and Courtney’s heavy drug usage, especially with heroin, but nothing prepared me for how dazed, out-of-control, and completely blank they both appeared. Kurt’s addiction to heroin was certainly a cause of his depression, and its effects are put on full display. Unlike the rest of the sequences in the film, which are often accompanied by songs, this footage is completely raw. It’s a striking departure from Morgen’s expressionistic animations.
For anyone who loves Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, this is perhaps the closest one can get to understand the inner soul of the man. The film is visceral, soulful, and hectic. As a fan, this is all I ever could have asked for.