Hot Docs Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015, Brett Morgan)

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I was one year old when Kurt Cobain commanded a nation to “entertain us.” Being born in 1990, I had missed grunge rock’s entry into the mainstream, the rise of flannel and fuzzed-out guitars all voiced by a scraggly-haired man named Kurt Cobain. By the time I began discovering music on my own at the age of six or seven, Cobain was no longer with us. What remained were heavy rotations of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio and television, black and yellow happy face posters in stores everywhere and a mythological creature bigger than Michael Jackson. I never grew up with Nirvana; I grew up with the legend of Nirvana.

In the two decades since Cobain committed suicide, I have admittedly learned a little more about him, his music and his life, but much of what I’ve read or seen, be it in retrospectives, books or films, is often highly romanticized. Even though Cobain clearly struggled with drugs and depression, his early demise has transformed him into a musical god (among many who met similar fates) and one of the most notable things about the new documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is that the most defining moment in his life, his suicide, is practically nonexistent. In fact, it’s a mere footnote at the very end.

Instead of focusing on Cobain’s death, as many might be tempted to do, Montage of Heck shines a refreshing new light on the life of Cobain. As the first “authorized” documentary on Cobain, writer and director Brett Morgan was given full access to Cobain’s personal belongings including handwritten notes and drawings which are animated in the film as well as his cassette tapes that revealed narratives documented like diary entries or confessionals of Cobain’s.

This creates the foundation of which Cobain’s story is told, through his own words, and further illustrated by graphic novel-like segments where he retells stories like trying to lose his virginity and discovering weed. The documentary also draws from interviews with some of Cobain’s closest friends and family including wife Courtney Love, his mother and sister, and his bandmate Krist Novoselic (though curiously, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s interview was left on the cutting room floor).

The end result is a very thorough profile of a human being, not a god. Footage of Cobain as a child is heartbreakingly endearing as he proclaims in an early clip: “I’m Kurt Cobain!” while in his years with Love, we see plenty of raw video recordings of the two madly in love, cracking jokes at each other and, in his last months, taking care of daughter Frances Bean Cobain. In one of the most jarring scenes, Cobain is seen holding his daughter as she gets her first haircut looking lethargic as he assures, “I’m not on drugs, I’m tired.” It’s just as heartbreaking to watch that scene because, two hours after seeing a smiling doe-eyed child full of life, we are seeing a man denying an addiction to drugs, almost entirely drained of that energy and life seen earlier.

Montage of Heck doesn’t hide the fame and celebrity of Cobain either. We see the meteoric rise of Nirvana, the magazine covers and the Beatles-like fandom, but it never felt like the main story at hand. Rather, it was just a part of the complex story of Cobain’s hectic life and the overall montage was well-balanced, realistic and the most grounded depiction of Cobain I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re a fan of Nirvana or you just grew up with the image of Kurt Cobain plastered on college dorm rooms everywhere, Montage of Heck is a clear and direct representation of the man behind the legend, the man who thoroughly entertained us.

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Posted on by Melody Lamb in Hot Docs

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