'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck': Sundance Review

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Impressive in parts, but unruly as a whole.

Brett Morgen directed this first-ever fully authorized documentary feature about the musician, which relies heavily on Cobain's own archive of materials, including home movies.

Arguably the biggest rock star of the 1990s is given the authorized-biographical-documentary treatment for the first time in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, from writer-director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, the Rolling Stones doc Crossfire Hurricane). Though it features new interviews with people from the late singer’s entourage, including his parents, his wife, Courtney Love and fellow Nirvana member Krist Novoselic, the film, executive produced by Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain, tries to be not only an account of his life as told by others, but also something akin to a stream-of-consciousness autobiography, drawing on thousands of pages of diaries, notes and sketches, and a lot of previously unseen home-video footage.

The supersized result, 132 minutes long, was made with unprecedented access to the Cobain family’s personal archives and is impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole. Too repetitive for all but the biggest fans, HBO and Universal Pictures International will have to do some serious marketing and perhaps some pruning to turn this into a wider breakout.

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The film starts before Cobain was even born in Aberdeen, Wash., with the singer’s mother, Wendy, recounting how she met her husband, Donald Cobain, and ended up marrying him even though she wasn’t necessarily in love. While this might seem like a premature point to start at, it makes sense when, not much later, the film goes into some detail about the devastating effect Don and Wendy’s divorce had on their eldest, Kurt, who was only 9 when they separated. The already hyper and hypersensitive child became completely unruly as a result, staying for a few weeks at a time at the homes of different family members before being thrown out time and again.

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Like much of the film, the early-going contains not only archival footage but also Kurt’s own drawings and a lot of home-video material, with the precocious blond banging away on a plastic piano and a baby drum set before he was even 2 years old. As Kurt becomes a teenager, his sketches start to contain ever-darker elements and here Morgen introduces the ace up his sleeve, which sets this documentary apart from a lot of others with new talking heads and old archive material: He gives life to Kurt’s own drawings by briefly animating them and actually recreates some sequences from Cobain’s own life through animation. Rendered in a dense and painterly style, these more lyrical segments are accompanied by swelling, almost haunting orchestral versions of some of Nirvana’s most famous hits.

Not everyone will warm to these semifictional “reenactments,” but they do make it abundantly clear that Kurt was an artist in the larger sense rather than “just” a musician. This impression only increases when Morgen adds (often also lightly animated) excerpts from Cobain’s written notes he left more than 4,000 pages in total which show both his growth and continued doubts as a person and a lyricist (as well as his occasionally wobbly spelling).

The way Cobain felt, especially after his long-desired first sexual experience went awry and that then became known in school, directly fed into his attraction to punk rock, with its shouted lyrics about anger and alienation. However, in one of the film’s biggest failings, Morgen doesn’t connect this with the nascent grunge scene that was springing up in that time in Seattle, and without that contextual information, the idea that Cobain became the voice of an entire generation feels unsubstantiated.

It takes almost an hour before the film discusses the release of Nirvana’s amazingly successful second album, 1991's Nevermind, which would make the three megastars. Even so, the musical work that preceded it is only barely mentioned. The film does try to suggest the effect all this unexpected attention had on the group, with Cobain, who could clearly not handle this from the start, most often hiding behind his long blond locks during press interviews. His own notes reveal that the only reason he kept touring was that he felt all the media hassle was redeemed by the sensation of simply playing live, and Novoselic explains that he tried to cope with the sudden pressure of stardom by drinking beer and wine, but Cobain’s drug of choice was heroin.

It is at this time that he met Love, who would become the mother of their daughter, Frances. She’d already been an addict as well, and after they got married, instead of touring, Cobain withdrew to their apartment to simply paint and do heroin. Several interviewees suggest that Cobain simply wanted to build a stable home and family, since he never had one, but clearly, stardom and drugs made that impossible. A lot (read: too much) of home-video footage of the Cobain-Love household is inserted here, though it does provide a little bit of insight into the kind of home they were giving their daughter (one of the film's weirdest moments is a crack-baby animated segment, and one can't help but wonder how Frances must feel about that).

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The drugs, withdrawal symptoms and excesses are familiar from countless rock docs, and Morgen doesn’t provide many new insights here, even if this section contains one of the film’s most touching moments, when, during a stadium concert, Cobain asks the audience to say, “Courtney, we love you!” after she’d been having a rough time with the media. When the crowd responds, Kurt’s lips curl into a smile that marks one of the few moments in his adult life (at least as seen here) in which he’s not making music but does seem genuinely happy.

Too many musical montages, from, for example, the famous MTV Unplugged concert, sound great but add little to the narrative. It also too often feels like Morgen is picking and choosing who and what’s available or convenient. Nirvana’s third member, Dave Grohl, for example, is only seen in archive footage but never interviewed. Too often, individual scenes, cut by Joe Beshenkovsky and the director, work relatively well, but they don’t all fit into the bigger picture.

In keeping with the idea that the film’s a celebration of Cobain’s life, Morgen doesn’t attempt to directly explain why he took his own life in April 1994. Instead, he finishes the film appropriately somewhat abruptly about a month earlier. The unusual title comes from a sound-collage tape the singer made in 1988, and that is also excerpted here.

Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Universal Pictures International, Public Road Productions

Writer-Director: Brett Morgen

Producers: Brett Morgen, Danielle Renfrew Behrens

Executive producers: Frances Bean Cobain, Larry Mestel, David Byrnes, Sheila Nevins

Cinematographer: Jim Whitaker

Editors: Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen

Music: Jeff Danna, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana

Animation: Stefan Nadelman, Hisko Hulsing

No rating, 132 minutes