I had barely turned 14 when Kurt Cobain, front man of Nirvana, took his own life with a gunshot to the head at the age of 27. Yes, the early 90s cult band that made grunge rock popular were massive all over the world, including Italy, my homeland, but having just started my ‘proper’ teens, despite being acquainted with their music, I’d never really been following Nirvana as my taste was leaning mostly towards Beatlesian melodies at the time. When Kurt committed suicide though something hit me and you can argue it was the media’s glamourizing the premature death of yet another teen idol whose career had just bloomed.
Maybe that’s why upon hearing the sad news, I felt the impulse to start listening to Nirvana and learn more about Kurt or maybe his tragic death fortuitously coincided with the beginning of my own teenage rebellion. I’d actually just become obsessed with R.E.M. and I guess the timing was right to get to another screaming level with the Seattle grunge band. I experienced a quiet rebellion, an internal thing, an emotional and cerebral pain undoubtedly linked to my subconscious burying my Sicilian Catholic boy’s closeted awareness deep down in order to co-exist with others. Yet those feelings of loneliness, alienation, shame and not belonging anywhere needed to be discreetly exorcised and so Nirvana’s screams managed to therapeutically voice my rage and most definitely contributed to save my life.
Pardon this lengthy personal preface to what’s supposed to be a film review but I felt that expressing those thoughts was necessary in order to convey my reverie and excitement pre, during and post press screening of Cobain: Montage Of Heck, the ultimate documentary on the life of Kurt Cobain: the man, father and husband rather than just the legendary rock icon who burned too fast instead of fading away. Wonderful writer-director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture, Chicago 10) was the first filmmaker to have the cooperation of Kurt’s family and especially of his spouse, rocker (and partner in drugs) Courtney Love who gave Morgen unprecedented and unrestricted access to her private life with Kurt.
Morgen has basically built a docu-biopic using footage from various Nirvana performances and interviews plus unheard songs, unreleased home movies, recordings, artwork, photography, journals, demos and songbooks. The film’s title, Montage Of Heck, refers to a musical collage created by Cobain with a 4-track cassette recorded around 1988. The filmmaker doesn’t use narration but tells the story cutting all that material together with talking heads of Kurt’s mother, father and stepmother, sister, band member Krist Novoselic and of course Courtney Love who despite all the controversy piling up around her since those years, looks and sounds quite lucid and genuine in her interviews.
Another stylistic element that Morgen uses (like he previously did in other films) is animation. To cover especially those teen years up until meeting his future fellow Nirvana pals, the colorful animation whose style is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006), provides an inventive and entertaining way to make the story flow. All this material is gracefully blended together to show the intimate life of a man who was wounded inside from the days of his parents separation, feeling rejected and having a hard time finding a place to belong. From his childhood hyperactivity to his teen angst and depression, Morgen simply shows the facts and never makes assumptions or even worse pontificates about Cobain’s life.
You could argue the film is a love letter to the music icon but it’s actually an authentic portrait of his humanity. There are moments that speak volumes without a single word being said or with a few words that actually mean way more than you think they do. We get a clear sense of Cobain’s tortured relationship with fame, his reluctance to do interviews, because he doesn’t see any point to them as everything he has to say is in the music. And of course those home movies with Courtney, especially after the birth of his daughter Frances (who's an executive producer on the film), and the way he absolutely adored her. From the endearing start of the film when we see him as a cute little child saying his own name and playing around but also showing already huge sensibility and kindness all the way to becoming a father, it’s impossible not to melt.
Montage Of Heck is a mesmerizing cinematic ride that needs to be experienced on the big screen for the first time as the sound and music inevitably play a huge part in making this portrait of a human life so vivid and only the magic of a movie theater can convey that. There’s no use in revealing much about the creative ways brilliant filmmaker Brett Morgen tells Kurt’s story but a moment that stood out to me is a ‘making of’ footage of the music video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
In the famous video, the band plays the iconic tune that’s become an anthem of a generation in what looks like a smoke-filled rave party where teens rapturously dance to the song whilst the band members play in the midst of this bacchanalia. Morgen though doesn’t lay the original version of the track to this footage. He uses a deeply haunting version sung by a choir of children that’s reminiscent of a similar cover treatment undergone by Radiohead’s ‘Creep'. It’s a powerful choice as the stylistic juxtaposition of an orgy-like explosion of teen exuberance and the angelic voices of innocent children perfectly sums up Cobain’s essence.
The brilliance of Montage Of Heck though is the ability to exist as a daunting and powerful piece of filmmaking for everyone rather than just a tribute to a legendary artist made for his fans. In the end, what wins is the music and my warning for you is, whether you’re a Nirvana fan or not, there’s no way you won’t open your preferred music platform on your way out of the cinema and relish in those electric guitars and that raucous voice for days to come.
Cobain: Montage Of Heck is out in UK cinemas from April 10th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor