So…I Went to See Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck and…

Posted: April 13, 2015 in In Utero 1992-1993

…And I think you should too.

No, really. I can say, hand on heart, Montage of Heck is the best film about Kurt Cobain and the Nirvana phenomenon ever released. I did a quick sketch a month back summarizing other films on the topic and it’s safe to say there’s nothing like this out there (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2015/02/18/nirvana-and-kurt-cobain-on-film/). There’s a strong echo of Live! Tonight! Sold Out! in the editing style that doesn’t seem accidental and I hope that sounds like a fair compliment; it looks like a video work Cobain himself helped put together. Gosh.

At the ICA in London the viewing was shown ‘at the director’s desired volume’ which made a real difference – I don’t think I’ve ever heard Nirvana material sound so good. The sheer intensity of the sound, often tipping right over into a whine of white noise, made the live footage feel as close as I can imagine is possible to being there. There’s a relentlessness about the sonic layer of the film, long sections clamp down on your hearing and won’t let go, whole spittle-flecked mad dog raging going on – then suddenly a sharp cut, or a switch to a single voice, numerous moments where the near silence becomes equally hard-edged and intriguing. Again, that surge and mute approach seems very ‘Nirvana’ – a fair indication of the deep attentiveness paid to all aspects of this film.

The talking heads aspect of the film is actually kept exceedingly brief – the conversations with Don Cobain, Kim Cobain, Wendy O’Connor, Krist Novoselic, Tracy Marander, Courtney Love are a way to add emphasis to key points, to flesh out various topics. I enjoyed listening to Jenny Cobain – she was a down-to-earth lady and I felt nothing but sympathy for the description she gave of this increasingly unruly (and even cruel) teenager. Don Cobain came across as a quiet man, at one point he seems to have tears in his eyes, but he can’t get words out – again, I can understand why he might be a difficult person to maintain a bond with. I was slightly creeped out noticing how similar Cobain’s mother and ex-wife look these days. Comments about the absence of Dave Grohl and so forth don’t really get the point – this isn’t an interview centred film. Most people are stripped down to a bare few sentences, each well-chosen. It means the words do stick in the mind. Wendy describing watching her son come home looking ever more destroyed by heroin was desperately sad. Novoselic’s emphasis and re-emphasis of how much Cobain hated being humiliated is a very powerfully made point.

There’s tight interweaving of key themes. Novoselic’s point about humiliation is then returned to in Love’s description of Cobain’s reaction to her ‘thinking about’ cheating on him, which in turn harks back to Cobain’s audio tape recounting an early sexual humiliation, which links to the present issues around masculinity and physicality that run through the tale. The family ‘issue’ is obviously core – it’s funny seeing the early footage of a Cobain family Christmas circa 1970 echoed in the Cobain family Christmas circa 1993. Each one positioned just before a collapse, a disaster. There’s a lot of skill involved in having a film appear to barrel along at this seemingly unhinged velocity while discreetly creating these connections.

It’s great how much of the ‘Nirvana story’ is let pass by-the-by. The big milestones are logged via imagery rather than dwelt on with wordy exposition – the film allows existing biographies (and the endless churn of articles year-after-year) fill that role while it focuses on showing Cobain himself changing and reacting. I’ve seen comments stating that x or y isn’t mentioned and should be – I didn’t notice. Tobi Vail maybe is the biggest absence but there’s so much of more interest going on that losing an on-off girlfriend from the mix didn’t strike me as a crucial or noteworthy flaw. Of far more interest was the film’s see-saw with Cobain’s family life and upbringing at one end of the movie – and Cobain’s family life and bringing up of his daughter at the other. While the stuff about Cobain’s childhood doesn’t add anything fresh to what is already known, the material focused on Frances Bean Cobain, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain as a family unit is genuinely interesting because it’s perhaps the most detailed portrayal of that aspect of Cobain’s life ever seen. I’m not gooey about love and kids and so forth but there is something very sweet watching this young couple playing with one another, then watching them with their daughter too. I found it heart-warming and rather than feeling voyeuristic it stirred empathy and affection. Kudos! Like it! Watching Kurt, in bizarre drag, mimicking a letter Courtney reads out is both bizarre and funny – it’s also an indication of how connected the two seem to be, Cobain’s miming seems perfectly timed, Courtney’s words, his mouth. There are also plenty of moments where the physical similarity between the two is obvious, they’re very much alike.

The film certainly packs a punch the way watching any destructive path can be expected to. I did watch intently for the entire duration. The whirl of live footage, home movies, animations, cartoons, press interviews, studio footage, words on screen kept the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor. Notes of disquiet the film raised for me were that it quietly makes a very strong case for Cobain as poster-boy for mental health issues – the imagery taken from his artworks is almost entirely unpleasant, bloody, gynecological. Sure, most teens have a dark phase as they begin to expand their worldview and incorporate not just the fairy tales of youth but also the harsher sides of reality, but Cobain’s seems to extend throughout his rather short life. The well-known tale of his failure to sleep with a girl is disturbing not for the intertwining of suicide plans and sex, nor for the squeamish details of the girl’s unpleasant scent, but for the very fact that he took the time to perform the tale to tape – what for? Why? This endless self-documentation feels uncomfortable in itself. The early discussion of childhood hyperactivity and medication puts this theme front and centre, as does discussion of stomach issues and let alone the new theory raised about the reasons for Cobain’s suicide which – if true – does make him look manic. A few weeks ago I watched “Night Will Fall”, documentary film footage of the concentration camps (well worth a watch incidentally) and was shocked by the conjunction of images of skin-bone bodies being poured into pits then suddenly people walking or being held up, somehow still alive despite the seeming absence of any content to their emaciated bodies. There’s something brutal about the human body and in this film Cobain spends a lot of time half-naked and just looks so tiny. Beyond all the discussion – the statement from his diary claiming that he’d tried heroin ten times between 1987 and 1990 was a big addition to understanding of his use of chemicals (it looks unlikely that there’s a year from age 15 onward where he’s not on something frankly) – I felt the sight of his body made a silent case for there being something very wrong.

Wendy O’Connor’s sniping at Don Cobain – a man she hasn’t been married to in over three decades – did a neat job of undermining the ‘loving mum’ image, it’s probably the moment in which the problems in Cobain’s childhood stand out moststarkly; if this is the kind of spite and bile this lady can summon at this far remove, decades after the end of their marriage, it suggests the atmosphere in the house at the time must have been toxic. It made me feel infinite sympathy for Don Cobain who has received such harsh reviews from his son and others yet comes across more as chronically ill-equipped to deal with emotion rather than harsh or unpleasant. Already seen in the trailer, Wendy tells a tale of Cobain visiting in the autumn of 1991 and playing her a pre-release tape of “Nevermind” to which Wendy responds by warning Cobain that it’s going to make him a star (“better buckle up kid because you are not ready for this.”) I admit it still just didn’t ring true for me – one listen to “Nevermind” and his mum had the foresight to see he was about to become a runaway success…? I mean, fine, but Cobain himself still looked surprised and disarmed for the next few months after this supposed warning, it’s never mentioned by him in any interview, lots of people hearing that pre-release tape thought it was going to do well but I can’t recall anyone listening to it and thinking this was the next global smash in the making. It was clearly too good a story not to include but it’s one of the few moments where my immediate reaction inside the auditorium was to feel doubt about the honesty of what I was hearing.

I don’t have any time whatsoever for the murder theories that have circulated around Cobain/Love and seeing the couple together in this welter of home footage simply emphasised the unlikeliness of anything of that nature – yet, I’m not convinced of the new “Kurt felt I’d betrayed him just by thinking of cheating on him” tale. I mean, another one? Another tale…? I think I’m a bit jaded and fed up of fresh explanations. On the one hand, Love comes across as an intense being and it’s an intense topic she’s discussing so I can understand the bundle of hand activity she goes through when discussing it (cigarettes, water bottles, waves, etc.), on the other, not a clue what to make the tale. As a similar aside, Morgen has reiterated again and again that Love had no say in what went in the film – I certainly believe this is all his work but I have trouble believing any director would put this much footage of Courtney Love’s breasts on screen without any permission or sign-off of any sort. Frankly I can’t believe he’d leave himself that open to a lawsuit by not having worked out a very solid contract backing up what he could/couldn’t do with all this material prior to commencing the film. I really did get tired of seeing Courtney’s breasts by the way. This is not a sexy film though Cobain’s still photos of Courtney naked surrounded by flowers were remarkably beautiful.

Now…Do I have any criticisms? Well, yeah, I do. I’ll reemphasise that it is the finest film about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana ever made – it’s probably the only film I’d say is essential to the canon. Having said that, however, it isn’t “Senna.” The latter movie did an awesome job of bringing one closer to a genuinely likable individual, teased out the various threads of his being and life, had real zip to it, speed, momentum, fast motion. So a first difficulty here is that watching Cobain doesn’t make one ‘like’ Cobain particularly – he doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character. In many ways its fascinating watching this much intimate and personal material yet feeling he’s still a closed book – the similarity between him and his father in this regard stood out for me. I think it’s a consequence of seeing someone who can talk about actions (“I planned to kill myself…I invited myself over to her house…I was grossed out so I left…”) but quite clearly has so much difficulty openly stating his feelings. There’s an intriguing match in the way that Jenny Cobain seems to do the talking for Don – then later there’s the sequence I mentioned where Courtney Love speaks for Kurt Cobain (which in itself points toward the way Courtney Love often spoke for Cobain in interviews and so forth.)

There are funny moments in the film, good lines, plus he’s a natural at playing with his baby – but, again, those moments where he comes across as amusing and quick-witted and self-depreciating are outweighed by the gory cartoons, the vicious one-liners, the harsh writing. The footage from MTV Unplugged toward the end is enjoyable and brings something new to this mix because he seems at ease and the wise-cracks are actually funny. This film doesn’t make the case for Cobain as a fun person to be around, it doesn’t focus much on him as someone concerned about supporting a wider musical community or particular social or political causes, it doesn’t show him as a friendly person…It’s not easy to warm to someone who is both distant and seemingly so self-centred.

“Senna” was also – by contrast – cut to the bone, whippet-fit. Morgen’s fandom is clear in that it seems he’s had great difficulty cutting things out. The film is overlong and it is over full – I’m a Nirvana fanatic and I still felt restless at points. The technique was usually to spend time advancing the plot, then suddenly there’d be a five-to-ten minute ‘drum solo’ in which imagery and sound was slung at the audience. It really was like watching a band suddenly derail a song with elongated solos. Once, maybe, a few times over the full span of the film, cool…But this was constant and began to feel more like a way to cram more clips in rather than a way to illustrate or expand on a theme or key point. If the film wanted to be less plot-orientated and more impressionistic then cool, that’s fine, but it’d still need to be a chunk shorter in that case. On that same point, just removing the over-familiar live footage, the pieces cribbed from Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, the well-known interview footage would have left a far more fighting-fit result. If the film is aimed at Nirvana novices then I’d understand the overload of totally non-exclusive material but not the way it assumes so much pre-knowledge on the part of the viewer. If the film is aimed at Nirvana fanatics then I’d understand the assumption of pre-knowledge but not the overload of well-known material. This isn’t a ‘huge’ criticism by the way, I just think it’d be a more effective film if it was shorter and if it was clearer in its intent; rare material junkies or novices?

Another point would be that I’m not sure I learnt anything particularly new. That’s fair enough really; the tale is well-known, well documented. Barring that realisation that I’d never seen such a good case made for Cobain as loving family man and talented child amuser – there’s nothing else that didn’t stick close to “Come as You Are”/”Heavier Than Heaven”. There was no revelation. Did I feel ‘closer to the real person’? Yep, in the sense that I thought “wow, so young…Wow, so thin…Wow, so fucked up…” at several points. Ultimately I think it’s a true and honest portrayal of the real person; sometimes funny, sometimes loving, sometimes intensely focused, sometimes vicious, sometimes defensive. Cool, all good. Again, this is a very minor criticism. I did like the way comment was made on the Vanity Fair piece and on the derailment of that Nirvana book in 1992 in a way that didn’t get stuck into who was right or wrong in each case. Not shying away from the worst sides of Cobain was an honest move. Watching the home movie footage in “Montage of Heck” ultimately made me think that I’m not surprised people told Lynn Hirschberg that there was something really grim about the way the Cobain couple were living – and it’s long since been shown that most of what she stated in the article was basically true with slight tweaks needed to dates and times. Fans have long debated the extent and depth of Cobain’s heroin addiction and I think “Montage of Heck” does leave little room for doubt that while Cobain’s addiction flexed and varied it was a pretty solid presence – almost everything in this film post-1991 looks a touch sordid even before Cobain seems to nod out during his child’s first haircut.

I’d been trying to consider what the film might look like to a non-Nirvana fan – could it be watched just casually? Could it be watched and enjoyed by a fan of documentaries in general rather than of this topic in particular? The answer is yes, it’s a good primer on the subject of Kurt Cobain and it’s worth a look…But I can’t imagine it being held up as a masterclass of documentary film making simply because of that excessive length, the flabbiness, the overuse of what are innovative techniques once, twice, even three times but not as often as here. There’s too much about it that wouldn’t be of interest if one wasn’t a fan – but it should deservedly receive a wide-viewing on its TV debut next month. It’ll reignite both the “Kurt was so beautiful”  and the “I don’t wanna support a junkie scumbag” viewpoints – both have ample support herein. I can’t imagine there’ll be many converts outside of the next generation of teenage angst-ers looking for an idol who looks and sounds like an angry seventeen year old throughout the entire film. I’m also delighted that the film didn’t go down the posthumous deification angle; that Tupac: Resurrection film was gross in how one-sided and ‘touched up’ its portrayal of the subject was. “Montage of Heck” most definitely does not make Cobain look glamorous, charming or delightful. It does make him look very damaged.

So there we have it. A solid piece of work, some beautifully imaginative directorial touches, a few shards of new Cobain music, a great insight into the life and times of the last rock icon, a more human portrayal than has yet been managed. On the other hand, I can see what the Guardian meant now when its critic Peter Bradshaw said he wanted to learn more about the music. I was hoping to see more about Kurt Cobain as artist and creative but instead – beyond emphasising that he worked hard and did an awful lot of drawing, writing and playing music – that whole area felt like a sidebar to its core concern which was to show Kurt Cobain reacting to family pre-Nirvana and to family-post-fame. Fine! It’s a good piece of work. Kudos Mr Morgen.

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Comments
  1. Marcus says:

    Great review, Nick.
    I’m opting to miss the film at the cinema (nearest screening is just 12 miles away) since I have no share this experience with anyone but my nearest and dearest. DVD’s out in a couple of weeks anyway. Really looking forward to it.

    • nsoulsby says:

      I’ve been musing on that myself – was the cinema experience a positive, a negative, what? And you’re so right! I often hate going to something I’m really looking forward to with anyone else because then I spend my time wondering about their experience more than just getting into it myself – makes me more critical! 🙂

  2. Marcus says:

    Well done negotiating my comment, Nick. It should have read “I have no desire to experience…” The volume thing I get – I recall seeing 24 Hour Party people and the Hacienda scene was amazing in the cinema, less so at home heard at domestic volume. But, I don’t want this particular film spoiled by anything other than any flaws the film might itself manifest, to me.

  3. vannter says:

    Good film. Very well made. Makes uncomfortable viewing at times and is very sad in places but yeh its a well made and visually good film. Not sure what to make of Cobain’s family points. Not sure it adds much. Too much Courtney stuff. Some home video stuff felt like i didn’t need to see.
    I did like though how at times it was reminiscent of Live Tonight Sold Out as mentioned above. Some the editing was quite Kurt-ish almost

  4. mattskeels says:

    A well done film but definitely flawed. It was a little bit of a let down in a big way. If this is the film that Frances wants us to see, then why is there so much rehashed footage from Live! Tonight! Sold out? Is Live! Tonight Sold Out! the video Frances wants us to see? if so, we can go watch that instead.

    I enjoyed the beginning a lot and the parts with Courtney (surprisingly). But the last 1/4 of the film seemed disingenuous. In that I didn’t feel any shift in Kurt’s mood in life, the full impact of his heroin use, or his disinterest with keeping Nirvana going. It seems like the In Utero tour was made to be more upbeat than it was. As if his performances were better than they actually were and that he maintained his interest level, when I know that’s just not the case. I feel like Kurt’s last year should have been depicted as more depressed, more withdrawn, more alienated, etc. But instead the whole In Utero ending felt like a Nevermind part 2.

    All this criticism though ignores the fact that it really brings to light Kurt’s love life which I found to be genuinely uplifting, funny, and sincere. I just wish the rest of the film had more nuggets of music, like the one shown during Kurt’s time spent with Tracy. I like the artistic approach to the film though a lot of it seemed forced and repetitive by the end of the film.

    After watching the film and knowing that Morgan spent thousands of hours rifling through video footage, it feels like there could have been so much more shown in place of the LTSO footage. Now to wait for the soundtrack.

    As for the Rohypnol comment by Love… I remain confused. Is she referring to the Rome incident? If so, I feel like it makes that suicide attempt look like Kurt was an insecure obsessed lover who couldn’t stand the though of Courtney cheating on him, rather then the harbinger of the event to come and the greater problems at hand.

  5. francesfarmer says:

    Am I the only one who thought Jenny Cobain came off as extremely fake and bitchy? You pointed out Wendy’s constant sniping at Don, but I was more put off by Jenny’s sniping at Kurt. Saying “he wanted to be loved the most” kind of a snide remark don’t you think? Also, why are you assuming that everything she was saying was the truth?

    • nsoulsby says:

      An interesting point! To be fair, I think I can understand a woman who has been called “evil stepmom” in public being defensive and wanting to put her side across. It’s ‘a’ truth but in a film made up of people speaking opinions I don’t believe in ‘the’ truth. Bitchy? I didn’t think so, sometimes one has to be harsh. I don’t think anyone had many nice things to say about ‘Kurt the teenager’.

  6. nsoulsby says:

    But then, how would I know? 🙂

  7. Kristen says:

    For reference, I am 31 and was 9 when Kurt died; Nirvana was just that band with that one song to me. A piece of history, but not part of my life.

    Two weeks ago, I watched this film on HBO on a whim because I love music and I love documentaries. I don’t know how to explain it, but it truly hit me hard in the gut. In the past two weeks, I have bought all the albums, I’ve watched some of the other docs, I’ve read Journals and am about to start reading Come As You Are. I’ve spent countless hours on Youtube watching concert and interview footage. My whole world is kind of upside down right now as I am in the midst of the most obsessive band fandom that I have experienced since I was a teenager. I didn’t even know that I could care about something this deeply anymore.

    All I can say is that I can’t believe this music has existed for almost all of my life and I just had no idea what I was missing. It has been such an enormous relief to find this; I had no idea how much I needed this music and this long-gone band.

    I guess my point is that while any criticism of this film is probably totally warranted, at least for me it is always going to be my gateway into Nirvana. Probably there aren’t a ton of people in my shoes, but I can’t be the only one. Just thought I’d offer my perspective.

    Enjoying your blog, by the way. As a brand new fan of a band that has not existed in so many years, it is exciting to see that there are still people like you who continue to care and write about them.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Wow, Kristen, thanks for sharing this! Really love your story and your balanced view – that despite its flaws, the film ‘does’ something for you. That’s really cool. There’s too much of a thumb’s up/thumb’s down, marks out of ten, approach at times to something that is very subjective.

  8. nsoulsby says:

    I genuinely think there’s plenty of information, books, films out there detailing Cobain’s overall musical life. This film is focused on one compare/contrast; Cobain’s own family versus the family life he creates as an adult. I think it does that very well. Complaining that the film isn’t ‘another film’ that does something completely different to what it sets out to do seems unreasonable.

  9. Jacqueline White says:

    HI Nick,

    Great review. Like Kristen above, MOH was like a gateway for me to get right into Nirvana’s music – though I am old enough to be Kristen’s mother.

    I was 32 when Cobain died, and had three young children myself so not much time to indulge in music, though Nirvana were a constant on the radio. I enjoyed what I heard, and thought he was gorgeous, but that was about the limit back then. I am now a complete fanatic – which led me to your site (and I just ordered your book 🙂 )

    On MOH: one part I found a bit disturbing was Wendy’s comments about Kurt with his master cut of Nevermind. She said something about “he came downstairs in his whitie-tighties – just like Don – another thing I was sick of looking at…” (not exact quote, but close). Which made me wonder, what ELSE had she said that she was “sick of looking at” about Kurt? She might of loved him deeply, but that just sounded nasty. No wonder he had body issues if that sort of thing came out of his mother’s mouth.

    I first watched MOH at the cinema , where it was showing on Mother’s Day. My son took me along. He’s a musician though not a Nirvana fan, but he enjoyed the film as well. I bought the DVD when it came out, and watch it at least once a fortnight, particularly the home footage with Courtney. I find the footage where he nods out during Frances’ haircut disturbing, and you can see how K & C are irritated with each other.

    Anyway , a quick question (and I hope yous see this – 12 months after the last comment):

    You write above, ” …..new theory raised about the reasons for Cobain’s suicide….”

    Could you tell me what that is? I only discovered your site last night, so it may be lurking in here somewhere, and I am yet to find it.

    Thanks so much 🙂

    • nsoulsby says:

      Amazing how much one sees of the backdrop to Cobain’s life isn’t it? And the blur of things that aren’t complimentary of him, aren’t complimentary of his family, etc. It just looked harsh in a lot of ways. Ah! Theory, apologies; Courtney voices that Cobain kills himself in the believe that she cheated on him – that’s an extension/development/new angle on a few existing takes. Ultimately I’m pretty sure such an extreme act was a blend of numerous triggers and bad vibes… Hope some stuff here is entertaining!

      • Jacqueline White says:

        Nick, this is the best Nirvana site I’ve come across! My favourite piece on here is “Nirvana’s bad day at the office” . You wrote that so well, and used such brilliant analogies. My eyes were opened as to why so many performers get the shits when things go wrong, thanks to you. I know I get cross when my cat wanders across my keyboard, altering or wiping out what I’m doing, but that’s not in front of 1000s of people….

        I’m continuing to plough through the site…:)

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