Published Apr 24, 2015If the life and times of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain has been done to death, then why does Brett Morgen's new documentary feel so new and essential? The short answer: access.
In 2007, Cobain's widow Courtney Love met with Morgen in a Los Angeles hotel to discuss giving him unrestricted access to her dead husband's remaining archives, which included, among other things, childhood artwork, home movies and, perhaps most importantly, 108 never-before-heard personal cassette tapes recorded by Cobain.
Eight years later, that meeting has lead to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, an intimate, expressive (and loud) documentary that not only now acts as the definitive documentary on the subject, but possibly the best rock'n'roll documentary of all time.
That's because, over two hours of viewing, Montage of Heck will almost annihilate any preconceived notions you had of the artist. Childhood movies show Cobain as a creative and (shocker!) happy child, and home movies recorded post-stardom paint a pretty normal picture of he and Love's marriage and home life (although heroin's involved somewhere in there). And, of course, anybody interested in his band will find tonnes to dig into, from footage from their early tours, to countless audio experiments he recorded at home (an early demo of "Polly" and softly crooned cover of the Beatles "And I Love Her" may be the most interesting to hardcore fans).
But make no mistake: this is a Kurt Cobain documentary first and foremost, and a Nirvana documentary second. There's absolutely no talk about the actual songwriting process behind any of the band's songs (there's an exhaustive Classic Albums episode for those interested in that), and even the band's most prominent living figure following Kurt's death, Dave Grohl, is only seen and heard through archival footage. Instead, Morgen's focus lays entirely on Cobain, documenting the good and the bad (one startling scene has him recalling one of his early attempts at suicide, as well as trying to coerce sex from a mentally handicapped girl) without much of a care for his mythology and the band's legendary status.
For a film that paints such a vivid portrait of a young man's life, perhaps Montage of Heck's most resonant feature is the lack of time it spends dissecting his death. We don't hear Kurt Loder's voice slightly crack as we hear him tell the world what happened that day on April 5, 1994, or Courtney Love's sobs as she reads his suicide note. Instead, there's simply a date, written in white letters on a black screen.
It's a simple end to the story of a man whose death has become such common knowledge that you can find his suicide note, along with the most popular conspiracy theories related to his passing, on Wikipedia. Is it flashy? No. But in avoiding sensationalism, Morgen does something few other filmmakers have managed to accomplish when documenting Cobain: honouring his life, rather than romanticizing his death. And for the family and friends who outlived him, and the millions of strangers his music touched, that should be more than enough.
(HBO Documentary Films)