' Cinema Romantico: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Several times throughout “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” director Brett Morgen pairs audio diaries of the film’s titular subject with animated re-creations, evoking the sensation of an actual person’s life documented in the pages of a comic book, a deliberate and effective blurring of the myth that has taken hold of Cobain's story ever since his suicide twenty-one years ago. By ending his own life in 1994, Cobain, the icon who founded alt-rock legend Nirvana, also seemed to lose ownership of it, transformed into a pariah or a messiah or anything in-between, whatever term best fit the narrative being spun. But by creating a documentary almost entirely out of Cobain’s own personal effects, his diary entries and drawings and personal recordings and home videos, Morgen nobly seeks to re-claim Kurt Cobain’s life as his own.


As a child, Cobain was energetic to the point of unruly we learn in talking head interviews with his family, and that problematic energy was dealt with, if never “solved”, through a series of medications and trading off between homes of his divorced parents and other relatives. It’s venerable cliché that rock ‘n’ roll saves our rock ‘n’ roll saviors, and yet the archives of young Kurt go a long way in arguing this as truth. His artwork, in particular, advances in aggression as he advances in age, such as a truly intense sketch of a red-faced Charlie Brown appearing to strangle his famous beagle with a leash. It’s only a snapshot yet still a glimpse into a psyche, a re-working of the familiar insecurities of an adolescent idol as someone who might just as easily wound up roaming the halls at Columbine. The pictures he drew and the words he wrote all point to a percolating anger and insecurity that he struggled to control.

Nirvana’s game-changing music gets no explicative assessment. No rock historians are consulted to contextualize Nirvana’s place in the pantheon or even to clarify that “Bleach” begat “Nevermind” which begat “In Utero.” You sense that sort of exposition would bore Cobain to sighs and eye-rolling and eventually thunking his head down on the table like a kid in class who would rather be anywhere, which is precisely the sort of disposition he is shown emitting in interviews, Marshawn Lynch long before Marshawn Lynch turned every interview into a meta (non) statement on their inherent vapidity. Fed up with a question about putting his music into perspective, Cobain simply replies “They know.” As in, his fans know what the music means to them, and “Montage of Heck” essentially allows that to function as the entire mission statement involving his oeuvre.

What it makes clear instead is how music gave Cobain an avenue to salvage his sanity, a way to harness his frustrations and subsequently express them. Those frustrations with his peers and with his family and with society primarily boils down to a hatred of inauthenticity. He may as well be the protagonist of “The Chocolate War.” Whether or not you find this decrying of the world's abject fakery overblown, however, the fact remains that Cobain’s meteoric rise in the music world meant that after leaving so many apparent phonies quaking in his alt dust, he was only bound to encounter that many more phonies on his way to the top. And that’s the truly tragic paradox that “Montage of Heck” captures so astutely, how the music that rescued him only accelerated and accounted for his inevitable doom. And that’s what ultimately makes his relationship with Courtney Love the movie’s most moving, if not most profound.


Before we progress, let’s remember that “Montage of Heck” was given life by the Cobain camp, including his daughter Francis Bean and her estranged mother, Ms. Love. What they asked for, demanded, were or were not okay with, who knows? Surely not me, and so perhaps certain events were portrayed in a particular - that is, favorable - light. But then isn’t that the nature of all events? As Cobain’s profile rises, the film often contrasts articles being written about him and his personal life with Cobain’s own diary entries. They do not always mesh. Nor do the home videos taken of Kurt & Courtney’s infamous three month hiatus from the surrounding world when they locked themselves in their apartment and shot up with heroin for three months mesh with the oft-perceived notion that she was the negative weight who actively aroused his demise.

Strange as it may sound, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more beautiful a passage so far in a movie this year as Kurt & Courtney, home alone and drugged up and spaced out. That’s not to suggest I condone becoming a semi-permanent junkie or to suggest it glamorizes their behavior. But the videos as presented seem insistently clear in their happiness, lovebirds of a grunge aesthetic, completely out of it but totally in touch with each other’s soul. “Our combined fusion can bend spoons,” he writes to her and I have no reason to doubt this assertion. In this light it comes across as a considered rejection of Cobain’s rocket ship to fame, even a little bit prophetic. In early 1992 it's difficult not to suspect he saw the writing on the wall, and maybe he just wanted one more prolonged episode in the company of himself and his loved one before it inevitably all went up in smoke.

Morgen refrains from concluding the film with Cobain's death, and that's the right decision. This isn't about a seminal rock star dying; it's about a seminal rock star living and what drove him to death. All in all this is all he was. Everything that came after was someone else's version.

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