above: Kurt Cobain with daughter Frances Bean.
On Thursday, I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck at Seattle’s Egyptian Theatre, just a block from Linda’s Tavern, where Cobain was last seen alive. The film, which will premiere on HBO on May 4, is directed by Brett Morgen, who was granted access to a private archive of Cobain’s belongings by his widow Courtney Love in 2007. The previously unreleased material that Morgen found – revealed in an untouched storage unit of Love’s – makes up much of the film’s content. Montage of Heck is appropriately named: while it references a mixtape Cobain made as a teenager, it also describes the constant stream of videos, drawings, and recordings that drive the film.
Montage is set apart from other Cobain documentaries by its deeply personal experience, in contrast to more historical, musical, or biographical perspectives. The presence of Cobain’s often-intimate audio and visual art, as well as the sparse, family-oriented use of interviews, aids this personal touch. With vivid quality, we’re introduced to the various periods of Kurt’s life through family videos, acoustic or vocal recordings, diary entries, and much more. It’s a complete immersion into Cobain’s art and worldview, or as executive producer Frances Bean Cobain put it to Rolling Stone, “it’s the closest thing to having Kurt tell his own story in his own words — by his own aesthetic, his own perception of the world.”
It’s also clearly a Kurt-centric, rather than Nirvana-centric, documentary. The freedom Morgen has with Nirvana’s discography is noticeable, and tweaked versions of “All Apologies” and “Something in the Way” define some great scenes detailing Kurt’s childhood. The band’s rise to fame is represented by lively and immersive concert and behind-the-scenes footage, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle for Montage, and not the priority or focus. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is introduced by a title card as “Kurt’s Friend” rather than as his bandmate, and Krist’s interview is oriented more towards Kurt’s personality and psychology than his musical development. Additionally, an interview with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl didn’t make it into the film in time for the Sundance Festival. For director Brett Morgen, this positioning of Nirvana was intentional. “This isn’t a film where I wanted to go interview everyone who played with Nirvana, nor is it a film where I wanted to interview any more than the base minimum of what I had to do, so it was almost like primal,” he told Consequence of Sound. “Like the mom, the dad, the sister, the first love, the wife, the best friend.”
The interviews that Morgen did include in the documentary, however, are certainly revealing. Courtney Love admits that she did heroin while pregnant with Frances Bean, although she and Cobain aggressively denied the notion in 1992 after a damning article was published about them in Vanity Fair. One of Kurt’s diary entries is also shown on screen, with Kurt noting his ten experiences with heroin between 1987 and 1990. Tracy Marander, Cobain’s first serious girlfriend, says that he never told her about doing heroin and that she never saw any evidence of it. Kurt’s mom Wendy O’Connor shares an emotional story about noticing her son’s weight loss and sores and confronting him about his heroin usage. O’Connor says that when she asked him about using needles to inject heroin, Kurt was too emotional and couldn’t respond.
Kurt’s father Don Cobain is interviewed for the first time about his son, alongside Kurt’s stepmom Jenny. They recall Kurt’s attitude and resentment towards them as well as the difficulties they had with Kurt after he was kicked out of his mom Wendy’s house. Meanwhile, with the help of surpisingly decent animation sequences as well as never-before-seen family videos, Kurt’s childhood is vividly reconstructed. Morgen constructs a nostalgic narrative in which the idyllic, hyperactive childhood of Cobain and the idealistic era of the 1960s were shattered by Don and Wendy’s divorce, resulting in Kurt’s social withdrawal. There might be some understandable mix of nostalgia and revisionism when Wendy O’Connor describes the picturesque nature of Aberdeen, WA, Cobain’s small hometown that was hit hard by the decline of the timber industry in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, his perspective of social alienation, family rejection, and affinity for punk rock is made apparent and personal.
Beginning with the turbulence of his post-divorce childhood, Morgen draws out several incidents in Cobain’s life that reveal recurring elements of shame, and subsequent social withdrawal and depression, or rebellion and rage. One revealing story – told by Cobain in a previously unheard recording and put to life with animation – describes his awkward first sexual experience with a girl he describes as “not retarded” but “slow and illiterate.” After her father revealed the secret to their high school, Cobain felt so embarrassed that he got high and drunk and laid down on train tracks, waiting to be killed. The next train that came happened to be one track over, and Cobain was spared. It’s clear that Morgen wants the story to illustrate some common feelings of shame and its link with suicidality in Cobain’s life.
This might irritate some Cobain conspiracy types, who would argue that Montage of Heck is the product of a Courtney Love agenda. Love played no part in the artistic direction of the film, whereas Frances Bean, who loved the film, served as the executive producer. According to The Stranger, a woman at the Seattle director Q&A session Wednesday night “shouted her displeasure that the documentary was all ‘from Courtney [Love]’s point of view.’ As Morgen began to defend himself, the woman said she knew both Kurt and Courtney, and reiterated her point.”
Towards the end of the film, as Courtney is discussing Kurt’s hypersensitivity, she says that she never cheated on Kurt, but that the one time she thought about it and had the chance to do it, he could sense what she was up to. She then implies that this led to Cobain’s apparent suicide attempt in Rome in March of 1994. It’s another interesting and honest admission from Love and a revealing glimpse into Cobain’s last days. Cobain’s suicide is only addressed by a title sequence at the end of the film that states that he took his life one month after the Rome attempt at age 27.
Still, it’s clear from watching the film that Morgen’s initiative, rather than the family members’ agenda, are driving the film. A scene that Wendy O’Connor asked not to be included in the film was actually included in the final cut by Morgen. It’s difficult to watch: Cobain is clearly high on heroin while playing with Frances during her first haircut.
Although I missed the Q&A with director Morgen later that night, the Egyptian’s theater setting was a great way to experience the Montage of Heck. Never-before-seen footage, including extensive home videos from Kurt and Courtney’s time living in Los Angeles in 1992, is really valuable throughout. It humanizes Cobain like no other work has and I think many will get a fuller, although not any less confusing, understanding of Cobain’s life. Like executive producer Frances Bean, who labeled the project “emotional journalism” and wanted to avoid the “mythology” and “romanticism” of her father, Morgen produces the most intimate documentary about Cobain yet. With this goal in mind, as well as unprecedented access to Cobain’s personal art, notebooks, and tapes, Morgen produces a film richer in detail and more honest to its character than any previous Cobain doc.
Montage of Heck will premiere on HBO on May 4. You can check out the film’s limited theatrical screenings at HBO.