Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 3: The Review

When I started writing this series of four posts on the new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, I made a mental note that beginning such an effort without yet having seen the film itself could be risky.  I had always intended to include a standard review as one of the four posts, and then to conclude with another more “scholarly” commentary after having seen what the director, Brett Morgen, had actually produced.  Though the two-week delay in resuming these final posts is simply a matter of logistics—I didn’t have time to sit down and watch the entire film—it turns out that my fear of the riskiness in not waiting to comment were well-founded.  I have some reservations about how the movie actually produced measures up to the movie described in the press coverage and, more than that, concerns that it actually perpetuates the hyperbolic biography it was meant to debunk.

First, the high points:

  • Much of the movie is composed of animations—of Cobain himself engaged in activities, of the words in his notebooks writing themselves and building visually and rhetorically in intensity, of his drawings coming to life.  In many cases, these are genuinely lovely and novel; they’re a clever way to bring to life material that is not precisely calibrated for film as a medium.
  • Morgen matches recordings of Cobain speaking to animations that match the sentiment of those words, and this goes even further toward building the illusion that this film is the “true” portrait of Cobain.

In an earlier post, I characterized Morgen’s role as one of a tactician necessary for identifying symbolism within the cache of evidence the film purports to explore—for creating a credible biographical narrative.  It seems to me, with a subject like Cobain, there is something to be said for cultivating a meaningful tension between ambiguity and closure in creating a narrative that mirrors the rawness of the music and art produced.  However, Morgen’s film deliberately acts to remove ambiguity by the extent to which he emphasizes thematic statements within the interviews, especially humiliation as a recurring motivation for Cobain’s depressive and destructive acts.  Morgen’s narrative strategy resembles a Law and Order defense attorney’s—by giving us example after example of specific humiliations leading to negative responses and therefore posing a credible alternative “theory of the crime,” if you will, it’s as if he poses a cure-all cause for Cobain’s various ailments.

Where my first post considered biography, my second considered intimacy and what it means to strive for that as a defining characteristic of a portrait.  From the initial press coverage of Montage of Heck, it became clear that intimacy meant removing the veneer of legend/genius/rock star that has always been attached to Cobain and replacing it with a “humanized” interpretation of his presence as a man.  The film seems to act on this purpose primarily through showing what are, frankly, upsetting home videos of Cobain while he is clearly affected by drugs and by allowing Courtney Love, his widow, to speak freely and perhaps exasperatedly about her perspective on their marriage.  This highlights how negativity can seem to streamline the process of exposure; if someone conspiratorially whispers damaging opinions, they seem truer as the result of the care taken to cover them up. 

But can negativity actually heighten intimacy?  I would argue that it does not, at least not in this case.  Morgen’s film seeks to counter the extreme romanticism of myth with an extreme abjectness of suffering, and perhaps this successfully undercuts the angsty dreams of casual fans.  However, there are probably Nirvana super fans somewhere in between those two extremes (I prefer to count myself here) that understand Cobain’s evolution as a performer in more meaningful shades of grey that don’t come through in the dazzle of the animations and sound montages and the wry regret of the interview fragments included.  The move toward intimacy and unorthodox methods of constructing biography in Montage of Heck may have been undertaken in an effort to avoid overlaying another’s words on Cobain’s materials, but there’s little context to firmly position these materials outside the realm of psychobiography. 

In assessing what Morgan has or has not included, many have noticed the absence of Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, who has become a documentary filmmaker in his own right with Sound City and Sonic Highways providing careful portraits of, respectively, a recording studio and eight urban music scenes.  I don’t mean to allude to his absence as a failing, though it may be.  Instead, I want to point to Grohl’s forays into documentary, which deal with material just as legendary and narratives just as tragic (see the Sonic Highways episode that spotlights Austin and discusses the struggles of the 13th Floor Elevators’ frontman, Roky Erickson).  Where Grohl often skillfully skirts the line between sweet nostalgia and difficult truth, his role as compassionate interviewer abets the humanization of his subjects—it seems like they’re telling him things they’ve long kept secret.  This is where Montage of Heck faltered for me—in adopting the visual and symbolic language of the legend to illuminate the extremes of his actions, it misses the comfortable middle ground where nostalgia, pain, and truth can mingle to illuminate how myth and man can exist in one iconic cultural figure.