2015 promises to be a bit of a bumper year it seems for film treatments of the band Nirvana…Or, more precisely, of Kurt Cobain. The rise/fall model, plus the icon status accorded to Cobain since his death, place him in a separate category to the average superstar musician – he’s into the realm of Elvis, Lennon, Hendrix, Ian Curtis…There’s a dependency on the ‘one man’ model of cinema in which a plot is played out via a central character who must possess certain talismanic qualities. Retelling the story of Nirvana thus becomes a retelling of the tale of Kurt Cobain because, let’s be fair, without his remarkable rise to fame and his tragic ending there’d probably not be a cinema interest in him and he’d be confined to the same fan-only band releases as most artists on music DVDs. What I want to do here is just briefly glimpse over the record of Nirvana and Cobain on film from the earliest commercial release through to the present, ignoring (mostly) performance releases like Live at Reading.
The progress of Nirvana on film commences with brief appearances in Dave Markey’s 1991: the Year Punk Broke. Released at the peak of Nirvanamania, it captured Nirvana in August 1991 playing sideshow to Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth – just one band among peers. This entire vibe was emphasised by the back stage footage of the friends pranking around and amusing each other – a community feel. Cobain wasn’t even a particularly elevated presence though perhaps he did gain a little more airtime than his colleagues it was the scantest difference. It’s a great music film incidentally, lots of neat asides about what was already occurring prior to the eruption of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s famous declaration about 1991 as the year that punk broke was made prior to Nirvana becoming the world’s biggest band – a prescient comment. I’d have a suspicion that more Nirvana footage was incorporated during the editing process across 1992 given what had subsequently happened to the band – a comment on sudden lucrativeness.
Next came Nirvana’s own attempt to speak to their experience. Live! Tonight! Sold Out! (1994) is mainly remembered – rightly – as a stitched together compilation of band performances. I’d suggest, however, that it’s the first real attempt to make a cinematic treatment of the Nirvana tale. The format worked out by Kurt Cobain himself in collaboration with Kevin Kerslake and his team is a montage piecing together chunks of Cobain’s own collection of interview footage, back stage material and whatever else band members had taped of one another over the year. There isn’t necessarily a storyline, it’s more a portrayal of a single moment in Nirvana’s career – a whirl of 1992 confusion which still manages to be, at times, amusing, funny, irreverent as well as confused and disjointed and uncertain. While the net is cast relatively wide in terms of gathering material, there are still limitations and the mood remains rooted in that one location and in a certain petulant aggression aimed at fame and the Nirvana mythos at that moment in time when Cobain was contemplating its creation. Still, it’s a starting point. There are similarities to Nirvana’s earlier appearance in 1991: the Year Punk Broke and the timing seems non-coincidental – Markey’s film came out in December 1992 with Cobain having already started discussions and some work earlier that year with Kerslake as the vision of what the ‘film’ would be expanded. Ultimately what stops it advancing is the In Utero tour and the sad end of Cobain but this might have been something more. Still, it sits comfortably in the band DVD realm currently.
The next big endeavour took a few years to emerge. Kurt and Courtney (1998), I’ll admit, is entertaining as heck. Hand on heart, I don’t believe the murder conspiracies, but that’s irrelevant to this tale of watching a guy trying to make a film. Given the experiences the Cobain couple had in 1992-1993 with outsiders prying into their lives and running around asking anyone and everyone for tales, I’m not hugely surprised that Nick Broomfield’s bull in a china shop haring about was ever going to make him appealing. Again, irrelevant. The result is a rather scattershot enterprise combining the interviews he acquires with his own narration and ‘making of’ tale that set the style for films about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – focused on death, often ad-libbed or experimental in approach, not necessarily an advert for slickness. It’s a talking heads set-up in the main but there are enough people who are interesting to see talk to make it rewarding. Wonderfully it could be taken as a fine argument for or against the conspiracy tales given everyone in the movie – barring his aunt who thinks he committed suicide – comes across as unusual if not outright embittered or loopy. Please take that as a statement of opinion not fact of course – give it a watch, have fun! It marked the emerging focus on the death of Cobain as the moment of critical public interest beyond Nirvana fans and music fans, the piece that made it social/cultural history rather than just music ‘stuff’.
As an aside, I’m not neglecting the ongoing procession of straight-to-DVD interview and commentary collections that have emerged; I just gave up on them after a bit through no great fault of there’s. You’ll know the ones – Teen Spirit, All Apologies, the Nevermind ‘making of’ disc, there’s one on my shelf called ‘Too Young to Die’ which is a taping of a German TV show…Nothing to add on them except the obvious marketability of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – with Cobain being the bigger draw. He’s overshadowing his own band.
By the next decade Cobain’s standing had truly grown. The band of which he was a part has kinda become back story at most to the crucial figure as Cobain becomes a dramatic model – a template for whatever one wishes, doomed youth? Wronged victim? Man? Last Days (2005) performed a thinly fictionised take on Cobain’s final week in Seattle on the lam. Again, no pretence that my perspective on the film is the only one possible, but as a cinematic experience there comes a point where the absence of a plot creates a definite level of boredom. It’s a film perfect for those who believe myths of the millennial generation’s ennui, who believe that there really are millions of people out there just gazing blankly at mirrors then hoping people look at them. Ultimately there’s nothing to the film bar staring at the main character in various states of dress/undress, activity/inactivity, glasses on/off – other people are barely relevant. There’s an absence of any commentary on the subject – but there’s also an absence of any commentary from the subject either. By taking no stance, placing no words in the character’s mouth, there’s a void. Being charitable I’d point out that it allows meaning to be imposed and created by the observer – the puppet’s head fills with whatever one might wish. A contrast with the director’s work Elephant, however, is that in Elephant there’s an end point building amid the lives being lived that maintains a tension and creates forward motion – that’s gone here.
About a Son (2006) was a further experiment in documentary-making. Michael Azerrad’s tapes of Cobain in interview across autumn/winter 1992 and spring 1993 were combined with a tourist guide video of Cobain related scenery and locales. Criticisms that could be levelled are that the reliance on one set of interviews, from one specific time in Cobain’s life, creates a uniformity of mood and perspective – a certain deadness. Similarly it spray-paints over Cobain’s sometimes flexible relationship with truth – not a criticism of him, we all embellish and tell stories differently depending on time and place – without any corrective provided by other sources. I’ve commented on the film before that Cobain basically flames an awful lot of people and places in the recordings – a negative posture that doesn’t leave much room for warmth. I guess that’s my ultimate criticism perhaps, that while a very watchable (and listenable) film, it still circles the ‘tragic end’ school of cinema because it’s hard not to get to the end without thinking; “gee, this guy was gloomy and depressed and negative,” which seems such a one dimensional vision…
So, onwards to the New Year – two new entries. Soaked in Bleach comes out later this year and, at least judging by early material, there’s been substantial effort expended on it with full scale replicas of required locations and attention to the kind of knit-picking detail that keeps the average conspiracy buff typing in capital letters to their heart’s content. Essentially it’s the Cobain death trip retold by private investigator Tom Grant – if you’ve absorbed the material in the two Halperin books, plus the material on Grant’s own website then you’ll pretty much have what to expect plot-wise. More intriguing, of course, is that this is a cinematic experience and therefore it’ll be nice to see how they approach it, portray it, explore it. There are live actors involved, various people interviewed – I’m expecting a combination of re-enactment coupled with talking heads and voiceovers but we’ll see.
All of which rambling brings me to Montage of Heck, this year’s other major Cobain film. Again, I’ve not seen it, others have, the reviews are floating around – why am I particularly pleased to see it? Well, the other week the director Brett Morgen explained his reasons for leaving Cobain’s death well-alone (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/28/the-secret-life-of-kurt-cobain-brett-morgen-s-eye-opening-documentary-montage-of-heck.html). It’s certainly a little mischievous as an explanation, it’s not like the film doesn’t sound haunted by Cobain’s death, it’s not like it doesn’t set up ‘reasons’ for the end – death is coming and it is in the room regardless of where the film cuts. However, when looking back over the record of Cobain as a cinema experience it’s a pleasure to contemplate a film that extends beyond Cobain as ghost voice speaking at a difficult moment as part of a campaign to orchestrate positive stories about Nirvana/Cobain (and to fill the hole awaiting a book about the band and its lead singer) and focuses more on birth and life. It’s interest in him as a person rather than as a whodunit is what makes me feel pretty warmly toward it – a fuller entity rather than just an episode. The yardstick against which I’m judging it is the Tupac: Resurrection movie – which was basically a hagiography which glossed an awful lot of the unpleasantness in the life of Tupac Shakur in favour of a rousing application for contemporary sainthood. Morgen’s effort takes a similar approach – combining footage sources from throughout his life with his own voice recordings – but seems far more personal; the core of Resurrection stemmed from more commercial sources like TV interviews, video shoots and so forth rather than the personal archive and self-filmed/self-recorded matter Cobain and his loved ones built up. The weaving of multiple source formats – art, music, journals, spoken word recordings, video recordings – also feels original and leads me toward a strong degree of positivity here. Eight years in the making? Sheesh, it’s just nice to see a genuinely new cinematic take.
Is there anything left to say after 2015? Oh, there’ll always be someone willing to give it a shot. My presumption is the full-on biopic must be out there somewhere… Otherwise, I’m uncertain. One varied reprisal would be the lacing of interview material from multiple sources and eras (there’s enough of it out there) to reprise the About a Son approach with greater diversity of sources. Similarly, tales of Nirvana created in that way might be a possibility given the official Nirvana DVDs have made scant use of the interview footage. Maybe the Spinal Tap style comedy treatment is somewhere down the line…