About a Son Should Carry a Health Warning…

I tend to stay away from too heavy an emphasis on personal opinions…But.

I just finished watching the About a Son film — seen it? I admit I enjoyed the nature scenes, the urban imagery, it’s beautiful watching these places I’ve never been and gaining a few interior images of, what I assume, were former Cobain residents. And the visual choice, throughout much of the film, to only use imagery where the face of the key protagonists was concealed was superb. Likewise, hearing so much audio material of Kurt Cobain speaking about himself and it all being so familiar given I’ve been living with a copy of Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are since my mid-teens; hearing the source interviews was intriguing though I admit I’d always thought Michael would sound less geeky and far less sycophantically chirpy — but what the hey, being an interviewer must be a curious experience, wanting someone to keep speaking, say more.

What stuck with me, however, was how hard it was to carry a positive image of Kurt Cobain unfortunately; the film took me further away from the majesty and beauties of the music, it’s sympathetic impact, instead it dwelt so starkly on the negatives of his perception of the world, hauled out so many uncomfortable aspects of him as a person that I was left praying that I was listening to (a) Kurt Cobain messing with the interviewer and (b) an editor’s reemphasis of a particular image that the media landscape is now thoroughly invested in.

What stuck with me? Well, by 29 minutes in, we’ve learnt that Kurt’s mother was a goddess until the divorce then became just another stupid person who had to relearn how to live; that Kurt’s father was a harsh disciplinarian who beat him and bullied him and who forgot about him as soon as he remarried; that Kurt was the only unique person at his early schools and everyone else was stultifying boring and mediocre; that his favourite teachers were the one who would indulge him and listen to him talk and the one who glorified Kurt’s work and sent it to contests secretly; that Krist Novoselic was lazy and uninterested in music until Kurt finally got him to listen to the Fecal Matter demo…

…By an hour in we’ve learnt that Olympia was full of boring people who he didn’t like; that he had no interest in taking part in the collaborative underground scene there and that it wasn’t responsible for his flourishing; that Seattle was pretentious and middle class; that Tracy Marander was totally indulgent and would buy him everything and despite a four year relationship really he never felt he could bond with her creatively. Oh, and he’s not got a heroin problem and never did; it was a temporary thing.

And then, the chink of light…He simply states that he’s fine if people want to talk about his music…And it’s visible that in the past hour and fifteen there’s been not one moment where the editor has chosen to focus on music as opposed to soap opera, personal conflicts and bad experiences — it’s a remarkably concentrated distillation of all someone’s nasty thoughts. The narrative created is a one-dimensional slide from ‘idyllic childhood’ through brutal adulthood; a very specific plotline applied unrelentingly — a single model.

At one hour seventeen the most visible piece of editing occurs when whoever is in charge cuts together multiple different tapes of Kurt making aggressive statements about a particular set of journalists he felt were responsible for his newborn child being removed from his care; for very public criticism and hyperbolic unpleasantness from tabloids — it’s statements from various moments whittled together into a single clip of viciousness which, of course, makes it sound far more direct and far less flippant than it might be intended. The absence of the context (i.e., “my baby was taken from me; the papers claimed my baby was a junky; my wife was being called a whore, a druggy and a bad mother…”) leaves only the verbal aggression. A sad trick.

At one eighteen he remembers to say the one charitable thing permitted on the tape; that Michael Azerrad isn’t the kind of scumbag journalist he’s talking about; that one man isn’t the man he’s criticising when he talks about the intrusiveness, the manipulation and the abuse he feels he’s suffered. It’s telling that this one snippet is permitted a place on the audio track; remember everyone, he’s talking about everyone else, this one man is the good one.

It seems remarkable to create a film focused on an artist in any field and successfully ignore any mention of their creative process or endeavours; Kurt Cobain’s lyrics are reduced to a throw-away line about dealing with things that annoy him — it’s a tragedy when that’s all the film is willing to glean about over a decade of efforts that resonated so well with a wide populace that a number of songs have become ubiquitous.

It puts me in mind of the general media reaction to any criticism it receives. As examples from the U.K., recently an author called Hilary Mantel made some very coherent statements about the way the British media uses Kate Middleton as a kind of clothes horse and/or birthing engine — the media response was so brutal our Prime Minster felt moved to comment on how wrong-headed he felt her statements were…Despite having clearly neither read nor understood them. A similar case a long while back was the Paedophilia special of a satirical series called Brasseye (I swear to you, go watch this show, it was a true gem). The episode took aim at the confused, vicious and hysterical reaction of the media at the time which was conducting a witch-hunt and generally scaring up a storm. While watching Been a Son all I could think is “wow, if Rolling Stone magazine wanted to take posthumous revenge for Kurt Cobain’s comments on the magazine then this is perfect…”

An element that made me hopeful was a brief statement about how his jams with Courtney were leading to good songs…Oh boy…Don’t get my hopes up by making me think there really is a lot more to come than “Stinking of You.” Barring that…It just left me despondent sitting through a soap opera vision of the life of a significant musical artist, one in which music has been erased or lowered to the status of minor background noise…


3 thoughts on “About a Son Should Carry a Health Warning…”

  1. “Kurt Cobain messing with the interviewer”

    I think to a degree there was an element of that. Everett True mentions being around when Kurt was expecting a call from Azerrad, and asking if anyone had any creative suggestions for things he might say.

    I really love the film, though. Very interesting, very different.

  2. Only seen it once and that was fair few years ago.
    I thought it was depressing to be honest and didn’t actually give much insight and didn’t think much of the film. From what i rmember of it it was a watered version down of ‘Come As You Are’ but focusing more of Cobain’s ‘troubles’ and his more negative comments.
    I also found some of the audio stitching of conversations and editing in places a bit dubious at times. Kurt Cobain did come off as incredibly grumpy in this film for a good bulk when didn’t really in Azerrad’s own book or least from what i remember.

    Probably because that book was written at the time as this film was a post mortem. The tone is very different from what i rmember.

    There was a real notable lack of any talk of Cobain’s own songs , music , recordings and Nirvana even itself.
    I guess the point was just to focus on Kurt Cobain but did seem to be more about his problems of fame and the media of the time than much else . I didn’t really care for it much.
    The soundtrack was good though.

    As said ive not seen it in years but those were my impressions of it.

  3. Just revisiting this to say that I watched the film again on Friday, and it has to rate not only as one of my favourite Cobain-related DVDs, but I’d go so far as to say it’s one of my all-time favourite films. I almost wish it wasn’t about Kurt Cobain. Hey! maybe that’s why they called it “About a Son”, instead of “About a Rock Cartoon Character”.

    Brilliant, brilliant film.

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