Cobain: Montage of Heck

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

I know that in some quarters of the internet and out there in the real world, Kurt Cobain (and Nirvana specifically) are seen as “overrated”. Bracketed into that “good at the time but we’ve moved on now” category by folk who either simply don’t like Nirvana or feel that they somehow grew out of the whole angsty grunge rock thing that went on during their youth. Great as a band who completely changed the sound of mainstream music in an era where 6 minute guitar solos and hair metal were inescapable, but just don’t fit in to a modern world some 25 years later. Once good, now dated. Over. Rated.

But that’s not me. I fucking love Nirvana. Come As You Are was the first riff I properly learnt how to play on guitar, their songs were what me and my friends covered when we jammed together, and they’re the songs I still play first even now whenever I sporadically pick up a guitar. They changed everything for me personally, from the way I’d dress to the bands I’d listen to. Pixies, Wipers, The Meat Puppets, Husker Du; they are in my album collections because of Nirvana. I have very fond memories of discovering their music, arguing why In Utero is their best album (because it just is OK?!) and wandering around the grottiest parts of Wolverhampton looking for the market with the guy who sells the Outcesticide bootlegs.

This may sound controversial, and I can understand why, but I doubt there’ll ever be a better band; better musically, lyrically, influentially, whatever category you like. There are very few bands that equal their talent, their output and their influence, albeit in my heavily biased opinion. They’ve been my favourite band probably since around the age of 13, and they still are at the age of 28 (fuck me, I’m older than Kurt was when he died, that’s a depressing realisation). So, obviously, I was very excited about the idea of a proper documentary exploring Kurt’s life using actual archived unseen home videos and recordings. Crucially, making it stand out from all of the rest, it being the only documentary that was produced with the cooperation of his family.

To that extent, it’s a powerful, emotionally draining and thoroughly engrossing documentary. Director Brett Morgen had unprecedented access to stacks of personal family home videos, exclusive interviews with Kurt’s former friends, girlfriends and family members, as well as rare unheard recordings and demos. For those unaware, the film’s title, Montage of Heck, comes from a cassette tape that Kurt recorded in his youth, mixing songs, clips and weird noises. It seems somehow prophetic that his journal scribbles, sketches, audio recordings and tapings would be stitched together someday and shared with the world in this way. Seeing as much of a full picture as is possible in this format, not just a glimmer of the real man behind the myth; the so-called voice of an apathetic, disassociated youth culture who hated themselves and wanted to die. It’s a very emotionally raw and moving documentary.

Witnessing a particular video that was shot towards the end of Kurt’s short life, clearly stoned out of his mind in a barely conscious state as he tries to hold his infant daughter steady as his wife, Courtney Love, gives her a haircut; it’s deeply distressing. Not only because you’re seeing a man in no fit state to be looking after a child, but because of all of the footage you’ve seen up to that point. To watch this once creative man, this bright light, dim to such a weak ember, is the true tragedy being told here.

Allowing family members and those close to Kurt to have their say in what he was like, it means you get to see not just Kurt the musician, but Kurt the father, the husband, the artist who just wants to stop being a rock icon or considered the voice of a generation. By no means a saint, but a real human being. You learn through the 140 minute run time to discard those old flippant comments you’ve probably read in the interviews he gave, things he’d said that never really gave you much of an impression of what he was really like beyond the fact he hated interviews and the constant prying into his personal affairs and accusations from journalists.

From the videos of him as the blue eyed, blonde haired, carefree toddler, always smiling, playing and singing, on to being the troubled pot-smoking teenager who was passed about from relative to relative because nobody could be arsed to really put in the effort to help him. Right the way through to Nirvana suddenly taking off like a rocket. It all just stings a little. Whatever your opinion about Nirvana’s music is, it’s difficult to watch these private moments of a man who is no longer in this world after taking his own life. An interview with his mum where she describes the first time that Kurt played to her the master copy of Nirvana’s seminal album, Nevermind, it just sends chills down your spine.

On top of all this, you have Cobain’s own music sound tracking the whole production. Sometimes using the actual Nirvana recordings, some stuff recognisable from various bootlegs, live shows, early demos or covers. At first, it did seem slightly jarring. Soundtracking clips from when he was 3 years old with tracks from In Utero shouldn’t have worked, but actually it fit in place snugly. They also animated stories / narrations from his own recordings in the early part of the documentary to fill in gaps where there was no archival footage, which also suited the tone quite well, giving proceedings an almost fantasy-like or mythical atmosphere.

I don’t think that there’s much in the early part of the film that will be new to viewers who already know a bit about Cobain’s upbringing (being shipped from mother, to father and step-mom, to aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on) but it’s still affecting to see honest interviews with these people. It’s well documented that Kurt and his dad didn’t get on, but to see his actual father getting close to tears when thinking about the time he turfed his own son out of their home, both he and his wife (Kurt’s step-mom) blaming themselves to some degree, it gets to you. As does pretty much the whole movie.

montage of heck

What it does lack is a certain something by not having Chad Channing, Pat Smear or more importantly Dave Grohl there at all aside from in old clips. They aren’t interviewed nor really recognised in any way, although in the case of Grohl, it’s fairly obvious why he wouldn’t want to appear given his ongoing legal battles with Courtney Love.

Nor for that matter does it have any interviews with Kurt’s daughter Frances, who co-exec produced the film. But, whether there’s anything for her to add really doesn’t seem clear as it’s a documentary celebrating Kurt’s life rather than his legacy as such. Krist Novoselic, however, does feature in part. Particularly in the second quarter of the movie as its focus shifts to the adolescent Kurt Cobain, during Nirvana’s formation and their meteoric rise. Krist then disappears for a while once Courtney Love makes her first appearance, reflecting what happened in real life in some ways, but it’s a shame he doesn’t really come back into the narrative again. The tensions on the group during their European tour could’ve made for some fascinating material, but I guess that just wasn’t the direction they wanted to take the documentary in. Its intentions are clearly to honour Cobain’s memory rather than drag up old long-since forgotten petty arguments between friends.

If you’ve read any biographies on Kurt Cobain, then you’ll notice Montage of Heck skims some of the more destructive aspects of his life. It doesn’t really cover the Sub Pop / Geffen “selling out” saga, the aforementioned bust-ups between the band, any interviews with Butch Vig or Steve Albini, or anything after he came out of the coma in Rome. It also feels kind of disappointing at the end in not attempting to offer up any real personal opinions from people like his mother, his friends, Courtney or Krist about why Kurt took his life when he did. We find out about his failed suicide attempt and reading between the lines of what Courtney says, that he was terrified of being alone and losing his family, you can just about stitch things together on your own.

However, the whole documentary allows you to see his life as it’s presented; the things he accomplished and the things he perhaps fucked up, and that allows you to make up your own mind about what might’ve been going on with him towards the final year or so of his life – or even to not care at all and just appreciate what he gave whilst he was around, maybe.

Essentially, Kurt seemed like a relatively normal, happy, fun kind of guy who had a difficult home life, but who also fit into the cliché of the tormented artist. Not through choice; he didn’t seem pretentious, like he wanted to be perceived as the tortured genius but in reality wasn’t. But because he was this creative genius who could’ve done almost anything he wanted to do. And pretty much did, I guess. He became the most famous rock star in the world and had the family he always wanted, even if it was for such a short amount of time. He even got to achieve his dream of making millions of dollars and becoming a junkie, as Courtney Love recounts during one of her many interviews.

Sadly, we all know how the story ends so there’s always that looming presence of his eventual suicide foreshadowing every clip, every anecdote. It just makes it all the more harder to see him when he was happy, when he wasn’t suffering from his chronic stomach pain or drug addiction. The happiest time of his life doesn’t even appear to be when he was making music, or when he was playing live or hanging out with band members and friends. From the way it’s portrayed in the documentary, Kurt lived his life fullest when in seclusion with Courtney Love for the six months prior to Frances being born and the few months after. He’s at his most human, his most relatable when seen alive in these moments. He’s young, in love and scared as he may be, he’s just not the junkie manic depressive his reputation is sometimes perceived to be.

I’ve lambasted other similar documentaries about deceased famous and influential people in the past for simply feeling like tributes. Which is nice an’ all, but very rarely makes for interesting viewing and sometimes comes off as mawkish and sappy. I think Montage of Heck avoids that pitfall as well as can be expected. If you are in any way shape or form a fan of Nirvana, or simply know nothing about the man and want to learn more, Montage of Heck is definitely worth anybody’s time.

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7 thoughts on “Cobain: Montage of Heck”

  1. Really good review. I think Montage of Heck’s greatest asset is to finally dispel the myth of Kurt Cobain as some kind of tortured artist who death was martyr-like. He was simply a hellishily talented musician with severe, sadly untreatable, mental issues.

    I had no idea Nirvana had tension during the European tour though, so I Googled it and found this: http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-06/entertainment/ca-42770_1_kurt-cobain-s-health-problems. Notice the date of the byline… 😦

  2. Really good review. I think Montage of Heck’s greatest asset is to finally dispel the myth of Kurt Cobain as some kind of tortured artist who death was martyr-like. He was simply a hellishily talented musician with severe, sadly untreatable, mental issues.

    I had no idea Nirvana had tension during the European tour though, so I Googled it and found this: http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-06/entertainment/ca-42770_1_kurt-cobain-s-health-problems. Notice the date of the byline… 😦

    1. Thanks, Chris. I was reading some comments from Brett Morgan yesterday and he said that he basically “followed the art” when trying to tell Kurt’s story, so if it wasn’t there in Kurt’s own work, it wasn’t included in the final film. Which is probably why it comes across that way, dispelling those myths you mention.

      And that’s an interesting article! Good find. I seem to remember reading in some biography or another (Heavier Than Heaven?) that the last time Krist saw Kurt was at an airport as he was taking him to rehab. Apparently they got in a fight, Kurt threw a punch at Krist after an argument before running off and he never saw Cobain alive again. Pretty sad considering what they went through. You can see in Montage of Heck how much it still hurts Krist to have lost his friend, even 20 years later.

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