I recently watched the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO, which has gotten good reviews since its premier (currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). As a child of the ’90s and fan of Nirvana, I was interested in a viewing experience that reviews promised would allow me to feel like I had gained some insight into Cobain’s life and death. Afterward, like trying to understand how people can argue that “Sliver” is a great song, I was confused.
The first thing I thought of when the movie was over was The Passion of the Christ. Like Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus’s last days, I don’t think that Montage of Heck would work for somebody who isn’t already familiar with its main character. Also like viewers of The Passion, I suspect that the positive reactions are due less to the quality of the story than to the ability to see a beloved figure’s private life. The fact that video footage of Kurt Cobain as an innocent little boy exists is amazing, but seeing it doesn’t really inform us about what happened later. As a result, my second thought was of Boyhood, which I doubt would have received as much acclaim if the exact same story were told but the adults were aged with makeup and the kids were played at different ages by different people.
Like Boyhood, Montage of Heck may be getting by on the process of its creation. That director Brett Morgen was provided unfettered access to these private materials, even if they are not flattering for those involved. Still, it would have been nice if he had provided a stronger link between those materials and the interviews in the present. When the fallout from the Vanity Fair article accusing Courtney Love of using heroin while pregnant is discussed, for example, headlines are shown stating that Cobain and Love were being investigated by Child Protective Services and that Cobain’s mother fought for custody of their daughter, Frances. Not a single interview, however, touches on whether any of these headlines were true. If they were, wouldn’t a statement from Cobain’s mother about the decision to fight her own son for the custody of his child be fairly important to the story?
The lack of these connections is problematic, but could be written off as a director not wanting to ask difficult questions of the people who are providing him with access to his most important material. The lack of another connection, though, is inexcusable. Throughout the movie it seems clear that Cobain’s passions were music and heroin, yet Morgen never addresses how one affected the other. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player who is featured heavily in the movie, never talks about whether the band was angry with Cobain about his addiction or whether they confronted him about it. He doesn’t talk about whether his creativity was increased or decreased by his drug use. The movie doesn’t even make a clear connection between Cobain’s drug use and his suicide.
In the end, I was left feeling like I didn’t understand Cobain any better than I had before. Maybe, as a Nirvana fan, I just knew most of these things from reading interviews and news stories. I suspect, though, that despite Frances Cobain’s assertion that she didn’t want the movie to focus on her father’s mythology, those who participated in interviews largely didn’t get the memo. For example, Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother, claims that she nearly started crying the first time she heard Nevermind, Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Not from happiness. It was fear” that “this is going to change everything. And I said ‘You’d better buckle up…because you are not ready for this'” seems a bit too convenient. Novoselic’s lack of complaint about the cancelled shows also doesn’t do much to chip away at the myth of Cobain.
We’re left, then, with a look at Cobain’s life from his perspective. (I will say, though, that I really liked the way that Cobain’s journal pages were recreated in layers.) “Read my diary,” he writes to an early girlfriend. “Look through my things and figure me out.” Morgen has looked through his things, but we’re no closer to figuring him out. Maybe the real myth about Cobain, like anybody who has committed suicide, is that we can ever understand the reasons.
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