Published on May 3rd, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an impressionistic documentary look at the dead rock star, amazing in some moments, but frustrating and overblown in others.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary about the rock star from Brett Morgen, who also co-directed the clever adaptation of Robert Evans’ book, The Kid Stays in the Picture. While we have been privy to many documentaries, books, etc about tragic musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon, to me those feel like the falling satellites of my parents’ generation. For people around my age, Cobain was our dead rock star, our big ‘where were you when this happened’ cultural moment. But there hasn’t really been a lot of material created about him, and what there has been isn’t terribly insightful or memorable. A film like Montage of Heck is one of the first indicators that enough time has passed for Cobain to become myth as he slips into history.
While Montage of Heck is definitely worth watching for music or Nirvana fans especially, and it gets pretty stellar reviews, it’s not awash in the runaway brilliance that some reviewers are gushing about. There is a smashingly inspired documentary buried in there somewhere, but it’s chock full of masturbatory self-indulgence. And if you’re looking for any actual information on Cobain or Nirvana, or insights to famous stories about the band, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Montage of Heck is more what I’d call an impressionist look at the man. It’s fine that Morgen is elusive about actual events, because the usual blow-by-blow music history doc is obviously not what he was going for. However, if we accept the film on its own terms, then making it an extremely bloated 2 hour and 15 minute running time is an overindulgent misstep.
The movie has some incredibly rare and often insightful footage and interviews with family and those like Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love (though Dave Grohl is suspiciously absent). Through home video, we see Cobain as a young boy, a teenager, a rock star, and a blissed out, drug-addled father. The doc paints a picture of Cobain as an often-rejected child, who bounced around from family member to family member as a teen, knowing that no one really wanted him, cultivating an acute sense of humiliation that would haunt him even when he was an unstoppable rock god.
Morgen employs similar methods here as he did with The Kid Stays in the Picture, by taking a lot of Cobain’s art and notebook journal entries and animating them. Or using things like existing audio of Cobain talking into a tape recorder and animating it as we might imagine it really happened. Some of this is marvelous, but it mostly goes on way too long, and also threatens to jump the line into a territory that’s too polished and overblown. In one scene, we see the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ but matched with an audio track of a choir of angelic children singing the lyrics, and it seems to drag on forever, while giving you no insight to the way that single hit culture like a ton of bricks.
This approach made a lot of sense in The Kid Stays in the Picture, where Morgen was just animating photographs to stylize the film. Here he drifts dangerously into parasitic territory as the director tries to meld his own sensibilities to some of Cobain’s work. And it eventually dawned on me that all this overly slick treatment of Cobain’s canon starts to go against everything that he was and everything that he did.
Remember in Reality Bites when Winona Ryder’s character has spent the whole movie filming her friends for an edgy documentary? She is crestfallen when the editors at an MTV-like cable channel turn it into a cheesy, embarrassing ghost of its own realness. That horrible, gut-sinking look on Ryder’s face when she sees her mangled footage for the first time came to mind here for me more than once. While Cobain may not have wanted to be the spokesperson for a disaffected generation, he was, and appropriating his works this way knaws on the edges of my cynical, Gen-X heart.
To take this a step further, the film also becomes incredibly hyperbolic, as if rewriting the very history of Cobain and his talents. From the very first sentence of the movie, Morgen (and producer Frances Bean Cobain, it should be noted) tries to establish Cobain as a “genius.” There’s a scene of Cobain’s mother talking about the first time she heard ‘Nevermind,’ and she says that she knew it would change everything. Sure, that’s his mother being supportive, but really? She alone could know that the entire zeitgeist of a culture would shift, music history would be changed forever, and her son would become one of the biggest rock stars that ever lived? All based on hearing an underground album that won a one in a billon shot at super stardom for its makers? This is all highly suspect, and a white washing of reality.
Was Cobain amazing? Sure. But let’s be honest here — it’s not like he was a piano virtuoso or an Olympic gold medal winner whose talent and hard work put him on a path to greatness. None of this is to diminish him or his importance to pop culture. He knew what to do with a handful of quiet-loud-quiet barre chords, but more than anything, he was a beautiful weirdo that was in the right place at the right time to enable him to touch the rest of us beautiful weirdos in a way we won’t forget. I’m not sure that qualifies as genius. As my CFCR Reel to Reel co-host Skot Hamilton noted, we used to think Jim Morrison was really deep too, but time and sifting through his work for meaning has proven otherwise. Even the movie itself establishes that Cobain had trouble with being praised, so how would he feel about dumping mountains of sugarcoated hyperbole atop his legacy?
I realize that in true Gen-X fashion, I’m sounding pretty negative about the film. I don’t want to go out on that note. As I said, music fans and Nirvana lovers should most definitely seek the movie out. It’s totally worth watching. When Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck succeeds, it’s reminiscent of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, just about someone who was infinitely more famous. It uses its impressionistic nature to get to the heart of who Cobain was, stripping away the tabloid and rock magazine stories we’ve all heard over the years to get to the inner chambers of his thoughts, feelings, and his life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We promised the good people at HBO that were gracious enough to send us an advance screener that we’d mention that this movie is playing Monday, May 4th and Thursday, May 7th to kick off the Cineplex Music Movie roster they’ve got coming up.