…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.