Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 1: Biography

(This is the beginning of a series of four posts presented on the occasion of the premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO on May 4.  The press coverage surrounding the film’s theatrical premiere on April 24 has raised numerous thematic questions about how documentarians, writers, and/or scholars treat issues of biography, intimacy, and self-fashioning that I will pursue in this series posts over the next two weeks.)

Writing biographies can be deceptively difficult.  The genre requires authors to negotiate the divide between how people are seen and how they see themselves.  Biography, as a guiding research method or question, is often eschewed by scholars seeking a measure of objectivity in their source material—in art history, this often occurs as devotion to the formal elements of the artworks themselves (color, line, structure, among others) and a resistance to theorizing artistic intent.   Critics often pejoratively classify treatments of a subject’s life and emotional capacity as “psychobiography”—accusing the authors of delving too deeply into the uncertain innerworkings of the mind, creating imaginative fiction in place of fact.  This accusation may be particularly salient when the subject is a prominent figure like Kurt Cobain—the embodiment of a regrettable nexus of exceptional creativity, unfulfilled potential, and inarguable tragedy. 

The subject of my dissertation, the painter Frédéric Bazille, also exhibited these qualities, including an early death at the age of 28 on a Franco-Prussian War battlefield in 1870.  I have spent years considering how to talk about such a tragic figure without unnecessarily mythologizing his life in the name of doing justice to addressing the significance of his art.  This similarly seems to be the primary challenge faced by Brett Morgen, the director of the new Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, and indeed, much has been made in the press of Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, making the demand that her father be “humanized” through the process of making the film.  And yet the onus remains on Morgen to construct a portrait of Kurt Cobain, with the materials at his disposal, that answers the requests of his family, that serves as a compelling documentary film, and that proposes a theory of Kurt Cobain, the man, that works with and against the legends that dominant his pop culture persona.

In answering the question of how to write biography that is squarely in the realm nonfiction, I found the most substantial assistance in the work of sociologists which describes how individuals are affected by the environments that surround them. Barbara Laslett wrote that the key to biography is understanding consciousness, “how it is constructed and its relationship to action.”  The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described “the world of objects” and how bodies and these objects define each other in relation to the evolution of the spaces that they share.  Which is to say, very simplistically, that we are the books we read, the music we listen to, the places we visit, and the people we love and tolerate, and we are defined, wholly, by the intersections of these items/ideas and the actions that these “objects” move us to take.

In this sense, Montage of Heck’s unprecedented access to the carefully curated objects that Cobain left behind—cassette tapes of experimental recordings and spoken thoughts, drawings and diaries, banal ephemera of daily life—seems to distinguish it from biographies that embrace the hagiographical impulse to view Cobain as a martyred grunge poet.  In Rolling Stone’s recent interview with Frances, the only interview she will give about the documentary, she describes an experience of going into the storage facility holding Cobain’s belongings and finding a guitar case full of his art supplies.  She speaks of a paintbrush and how the case “smelled like he smelled.”  She says, “He became humanized to me.  He actually painted with this and touched it.”  Here, again, we see the strength of objects—these art supplies, probably used to make some of the archival material so prominent in the film, substantiate the human connection between father and daughter.  The objects excavated from the storage facility outline connections between man and legend, a distinction deliberately blurred by both man and the tastemakers who have crafted his legacy.  Even if we cannot find true closure from these objects, their individual significance and their relationships to each other can provide a useful biographical outline.  It takes a tactician, like Morgen, to turn that outline into a credible and complete biographic portrait.