Production Companies: HBO Documentary Films, Public Road Productions
Director: Brett Morgen
Animators: Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman
Cast: Kurt Cobain (Archive Footage), Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic, Wendy O’Connor
I remember watching the Nick Broomfield documentary, Kurt & Courtney (1998) with my best friend when I was about thirteen-years-old. We were fascinated by Cobain and Nirvana, and also convinced that Courtney Love had killed him… We wanted to know more about Kurt Cobain and understand the culture he had inspired around him, whilst being able to wallow in the beauty of fandom.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (a.k.a Cobain: Montage of Heck) is not made to please Nirvana fans, and is therefore a much better film than it might otherwise have been. Unlike the renowned documentaries of recent years, such as Asif Kapadia’s, Senna (2010), which is the life story of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, Montage of Heck doesn’t tell a story with the aim of being just as a rewarding experience for those who know nothing about the subject as it is for those with an invested interest.
I make a point of saying this to start because it highlights the vast amount of respect Morgen has for truth of his subject, and the commitment he has to giving the audience an authentic experience of Kurt Cobain. Morgen does not make an effort to construct a ‘story’ from the fragments he has collected from Cobain’s life, but instead presents a stream of consciousness which spans the short twenty seven years Cobain was alive. Choosing to do this is a risk but a genius one, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck often feels like walking around in the memories of Cobain, experiencing his life first hand and listening to his inner monologue. There are very few documentary films able to achieve something so extraordinary.
The construction of the film is exactly as it states: a montage of heck. Morgen combines Cobain’s voice with animated scenes so the audience can watch his vocal descriptions unfold. He then slices between talking head style interviews with those closest to Cobain throughout his life, including his wife, mother, father, ex-girlfriends and Nirvana band mates. Morgen also layers the visuals further by referencing Cobain’s journal, and bringing the words, lyrics and pictures to life by animating them, alongside photographs, home videos, music videos, magazine interviews and newspaper articles.
Morgen strikes a beautiful balance which ultimately captures the essence of Cobain as a tortured, self-loathing, artistic, drug-induced, guilt-ridden, and loving genius. His respect for the material and those who took part in the film is unparalleled. Though it is a linear film, starting with Cobain’s childhood years and ending with his suicide, Morgen isn’t searching for hidden tales or approaching the content with an agenda. The film unravels organically, and there are moments where another director would have sought to over dramatise events, such as Cobain’s overdose, drug use, hatred of the press and turbulent relationship with Love – Morgen lets each person speak for themselves and allows Cobain’s journal entries to speak for him.
The more dramatic moments in the film come from a clever use of music and the animation, in most cases, of Cobain’s journal. This isn’t drama in the conventional sense, but instead Morgen externalises the feelings raging inside Cobain which translates powerfully to the audience.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is not an easy film to watch. It is unmistakably about Kurt Cobain alone, and though it obviously references Nirvana, it is about Cobain’s feelings at the time and does not chronicle in great detail the band’s musical history. What Morgen does do in terms of the band is add further context to their music, which I think would be of great interest to a Nirvana fan.
Though this the film is focused solely on Cobain, I do think Morgen has also presented a vision of mental health unlike any other. It is a study of Cobain’s struggle with daily life and his decaying mind; his dependence on drugs and his inability to accept himself. Morgen throws light on Nirvana’s representation in the media, carefully portraying how little Cobain actually had to do with it, and how this affected him with overpowering force.
I no longer feel the way I did about Kurt Cobain when I was thirteen, and though I still listen to Nirvana’s music, I wouldn’t consider myself a true ‘fan’. Saying that, Morgen’s documentary is one of the best I’ve ever seen. When I first watched it, I felt uncomfortable throughout and then thought I hadn’t really learnt anything I didn’t already know about Cobain, and isn’t that the point? But as time went on I realised how deeply the images had embedded inside me and how much I still identified with Cobain’s struggle. There are very few films which communicate so perfectly the positive and negative of their subject, and in this sense Morgen has achieved something profound.
Morgen was asked to undertake some kind of documentary about her husband by Love back in 2007, as he explains in his interview with Rolling Stone magazine from January this year, which goes on to further confirm the integrity of Morgen as a documentary film maker. When asked why Frances Bean (Cobain’s daughter) isn’t featured in the film, he answers that he died before she ever knew him. It’s almost an unbelievable stance to take, as having Frances in the film would be a huge feat because she, like her father, does not want to be in the public eye. But for Morgen, her appearance would be out of context for the film and takes away from his efforts to get to know the inner workings of Cobain.
Those who are not at all interested in Kurt Cobain will probably find the film indulgent, boring and overly melancholic; but if you can identify with any part of his story, or are intrigued by the concept of a ‘montage of heck’, I absolutely recommend Morgen’s masterpiece.