Montage of Heck Releases Kurt Cobain from Mythological Status

After months of promotion and intrigue, Brett Morgen’s documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premiered on HBO on Monday night. Viewers were promised to hear something different than the typical Kurt propaganda of his rise and fall, and rebirth as an urban legend. Montage of Heck definitely delivered on that promise and gave us probably the closest thing to a Kurt Cobain autobiography.

Throughout the entire film, we get to see Cobain through intimate home movies shot from his birth until near his end. We also get to hear his voice and read his writings. Morgen makes extensive use of Cobain’s notebook writings, filled with mundane things like rent projections, calculating budgets, phone numbers of record companies, and the odd rumination of his life and what he wanted to do with it. He spent seven years rummaging through the various drawings, journals, photos, cassette tapes, etc. that Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain loaned to him to create this uncensored portrait of the 90’s grunge star, and it’s these intimate primary sources that give Montage of Heck precedent over any other Cobain folklore.

The film’s first third or so focuses on the familiar tropes of the Cobain saga, as we hear Cobain’s mother, Wendy Cobain, describe Kurt’s quaint early childhood in Aberdeen, WA, and then how Cobain’s parents’ divorce changed his personality and he became a very difficult, lonely teenager. Morgen decides to portray these dark years through a cartoon depiction of Cobain. In a voice-over, Cobain himself describes that period in his life and his first thoughts on suicide. He comes off as very perceptive and sensitive, and also very much like Holden Caulfield. The animation allows the viewer to enter the twisted world that was Cobain’s Aberdeen and visualize his isolation, to hopefully emphasize with him.

We soon learn that this is exclusively a Kurt Cobain documentary and the juggernaut that is Nirvana is pushed to the side. We briefly hear about Cobain and Krist Novoselic’s friendship, but the release of Nirvana’s first album Bleach and the replacement of Chad Channing with Dave Grohl are skimmed over. Instead, almost instantaneously, we find ourselves in the blowup of Nirvana and their album Nevermind in the pop culture stratosphere.

About halfway into the film enters Courtney Love, and Montage of Heck becomes something else all together, a young romance of sorts. Intimate home videos dominate this portion of the film, and we see a side of the couple that the public hasn’t really been exposed to before. They flirt, banter, kiss, fool around, and seem isolated in their own quirky world where no one else belonged. Frances Bean comes along and we see the Cobain trio act as an unconventional, but functional, family.

It’s suggested that the infamous Vanity Fair article triggered a devastating blow to Cobain, who Novoselic claimed “hated being humiliated.” The film changes from idyllic home videos to disturbing stock video imagery and Cobain’s journal entries of “I want to kill myself.” Morgen touches on the Rome suicide attempt and the MTV Unplugged show. After Cobain sings the last line in “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the screen cuts to black, and in white lettering explains that Cobain killed himself at the age of 27.

The ending feels too sudden. While too many specials have indulged in Cobain’s suicide, it would have been nice to end with some sort of remark from Cobain’s loved ones. Surprisingly, we never hear from Frances Bean or Dave Grohl, although it turns out Grohl was not available at the time of shooting. Even the interviewers Morgen does include are used minimally, and he lets the primary sources take center stage.

Montage of Heck is not perfect. At times Morgen tries too hard to be dramatic and “say something” with the weird stock footage and twisted imagery. But it feels definitive, and the closest thing we’ll have to Cobain explaining his journey to us himself. Most importantly, the human factor remains of Cobain and he is never put on a pedestal or romanticized, something his daughter request not happen. Hopefully this film marks the end of an era of the mythological superhuman that was never really Cobain in the first place.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons in accordance with fair use guidlines

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