'Montage of Heck' is an intimate, heart-crushing tribute to Kurt Cobain
Montage of Heck is crushing. It’s also exactly what the title promises it will be, a montage of absolute heck. I’ll admit I didn’t know that much about Kurt Cobain or Nirvana before I watched Brett Morgen’s authorized rock doc. If someone said Kurt Cobain’s name I’d flash on the underwater baby on the iconic Nevermind cover or the chorus to, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were rising to their top-rock-band-in-the-world status just as I was becoming a cognizant human being, and for that reason they were a bit ahead of my time. But Montage of Heck did something I didn’t expect — it broke my heart.
Named after a mixtape Cobain made in 1988, the film is a total family affair, telling the story of Cobain’s life through the voices of his family as well as, often chillingly and always movingly, his own voice. Through interviews with his mom, his dad, his sister, an ex-girlfriend, his band mates, Courtney Love, a picture is painted of a hyperactive little boy, and a perfectionist petrified of humiliation, who turns unwittingly into the voice of a disenfranchised generation. Thanks to home videos which span his entire life — beginning with the super 8 clips of Kurt as a little boy, to home videos with Kurt, Courtney, and their daughter Frances Bean — the movie pulls back the curtain on the anti-celebrity celebrity revealing a gorgeous kid with a sense of humor just trying to figure life out.
As he grows up, still on camera, he becomes a tender-hearted, goofy rock-god still just trying to feel his way. The home videos are accompanied by Cobain’s doodles and journal entries — also which span his lifetime — all animated by the filmmaker. There are also recordings (Love had 108 never-before-heard audio tapes of Cobain in a storage unit) and interviews with Cobain himself; his own voice often acting as the film’s narration. At times the film is so intimate it feels borderline invasive, but it is without fail fascinating.
As for why it broke my heart, there are so many reasons. There’s something tragic about listening to the family speak about Kurt Cobain — not Kurt Cobain the legend, but Kurt Cobain of Aberdeen, Washington, son of Don and Wendy Cobain. Thanks to the home movies, we literally watch him grow up, evolving from a beautiful child to a pre-teen so impossible that no one in the family could tolerate him. Through his doodles and recordings we also understand that Cobain was a young genius, with a quick and complicated brain that often veered into darker territory.
The heartbreak mounts the more successful Cobain gets. With the band’s fame comes Cobain’s increased discomfort. He found an art form to channel his creative genius, but it’s also clear that fame was never his ambition and not only does the spotlight not suit him, it genuinely upsets him. As he becomes addicted to heroin the heartbreak grows ten-fold. There is no glamour to the life of a junkie and the film doesn’t shy away from that. Some of the movie is downright hard to watch, but amidst the sadness there are also elements not so tragic. There’s the revelation that Cobain was not just a troubled musical genius, but also a shy guy with a sense of humor, who wanted to please people, liked to tease his wife, and loved his little girl.
The film would not have been possible at all without the two main women in Cobain’s life — his wife and his daughter. Morgen, the filmmaker, told NPR that Love approached him about making the film after seeing his previous work. Morgen told NPR that she’d said, “The world knows Kurt from Nirvana, but in our storage unit, we have a ton of art, and I think that you might be the guy to do some interesting things with it.” As for Frances, who is now 22 and served as an executive producer on the film, she also needed to sign off on the project due to legal ties to Cobain’s name and estate.
Frances told Morgen, “Listen, whatever you do, keep it real and make it honest. That’s the best tribute we can do for Kurt.” Adding, “Wherever I go in the world, people say, ‘Oh my God, your dad is so cool and he’s like Santa Claus,’ and I think that Kurt was about honesty, and let’s make an honest film.”
What emerges is much more than a simple story about a rock hero, it’s the story of a human being with family, and friends, and love, and many issues. It’s the story of an addict, and what it means to be an addict even in the midst of fame — a side of the story that’s hard to watch, but important to understand.
In an interview with the New York Times, Love said of the film, “It was time to examine this person and humanize him and decanonize these values that he allegedly stood for…”
Perhaps most significantly, Frances wanted the film to be filled with truth, and it is.
Montage of Heck airs tonight on HBO at 9 pm.