There’s a rich history of music in my family. Both my parents were musicians during the 70s and that appreciation passed onto yours truly. I was brought up on a healthy diet of music but it wasn’t until my teenage years that I developed a true appreciation, and when I did it wasn’t my parents era of music that opened my eyes.
In the year 2002 a compilation was released by some band called Nirvana. I distinctly remember seeing the ad’s on TV with clips of their music videos; this long-haired miscreant strangling his Fender and screaming random lyrics. It sounded pretty cool to me, so on a whim I bought it and from the opening seconds my mind was blown. I saw pictures of Kurt Cobain and in that moment decided that’s what I wanted to be… and thirteen years later I became an amateur film critic studying a Diploma in professional writing and editing…
My mother bought me my first guitar at thirteen-years old, I bought their discography and armed with that DIY rock attitude I began the long steady climb to rock immortality. Obviously this plan didn’t pan out but the influence of Kurt and Nirvana has been rattling around in my head ever since, contributing to the person I am today. I was not a popular kid in school and it made things tough, but through Nirvana I found my place in the world. It helped me channel my angst into something productive and became the soundtrack for my teenage years.
From the moment I heard of Montage Of Heck the review was pencilled in. Being one of my idols I thought I knew the Cobain story inside and out but Bret Morgan’s documentary opened me up to a new perspective on the man. In this film he’s not the icon I’ve admired for so long, he’s the man behind the legend who stumbled upon success most can only dream of. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Morgan pulls no punches: there are a lot of very confronting moments. The happy toddler that opens the film is quickly replaced by a lost soul with no home who greatly yearns for a familial structure. When he can’t get that from his parents, as described by Wendy O’Conner and Donald Cobain, he becomes a socially awkward and isolated teenager who resents the world around him. This sets the blueprint for the pain-riddled man who is so repressed he can only express his true feelings through his music. But while it masks the pain it can’t quell it.
The next piece of Kurt’s life is the effect Nirvana’s overnight success has on him. A quote from Wendy states he is not ready for this, and it couldn’t be truer. Whether Kurt’s deterioration in these years is inevitable or not the stardom only exacerbates Kurt’s deep-seeded issues, accelerating his collapse. He then meets Courtney Love, and while he finds happiness for a brief period his self-destructive behaviour becomes enabled. Not to say it is all Courtney’s doing; the two are meant for each other for all the wrong reasons.
This section of the film is the most confronting. It strips away the rock star enigma and presents the skinny, sickly, drug-addled man. In a way it shows two people madly in love, but in another it’s a realistic look at two heroin addicts who found each other. Some moments show two straight-up junkies, and yet these times, along with the birth of his daughter Frances, are the happiest of Kurt’s life. But the contrast between this Kurt and the Kurt that’s on stage are night and day. In hindsight it’s so obvious that while he was influencing and entertaining millions of fans he was actually falling to pieces right in front of their very eyes. And nobody could see it.
It’s also the one time Kurt is his natural self. In front of the cameras and all the screaming fans he hasn’t any clue as to how he should behave, and many times he shies away from the camera. But at home he’s comfortable being Kurt Cobain. Here there are two Kurt’s; the family man and the rock star, and he hated the latter.
But by the end it all becomes too much. Not long after the birth of Frances she is taken from him and Courtney and they have to fight to get her back. There are some scenes of him around this time when he actually looks healthy, but this is short-lived. He eventually relapses, and by this point it’s gone on for far too long. The pressure and hatred of fame, as well as the depression, loneliness, and self-loathing, coupled with the addiction, overwhelm him.
Morgan has stated he was looking for intimacy and his methods have captured that. The documentary uses just six interviews from people who were closest to him (seven if you include the unused Dave Grohl interview), and though their insight is valuable and very effective it could have been utilised more.
In preparation Morgan had access to a storage facility housing Kurt’s belongings. Much of what he found there is depicted on-screen, including 108 cassettes of Kurt’s music. This, along with Nirvana, is the soundtrack to the film, and it shows Kurt’s development as a musician. He also found Kurt’s journals and artwork, which with the music plays an integral part of showing what was happening on the inside. Naturally it doesn’t paint a pretty picture but this is not a rose-coloured depiction. It gets down to reality and this is where Morgan’s strengths lie.
What doesn’t work is the film production. There are a lot of clip montages accompanied by music and while they work there are many in the film, each going the full length of the songs. Adding to the issues with pacing is the animation, which brings Kurt’s drawings to life. It’s brilliantly done, especially the scenes by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing which depict moments from Kurt’s life, but the animated journal entries (which, at times, were illegible) and artwork scenes tend to slow the film down. It also adds to the run-time, which, at over two hours, simply does not contain enough content to warrant such length.
As an existing fan I can honestly say I have a bias towards the story of Kurt Cobain, but even with my bias I still recommend this documentary. It peels away the outer layers and presents a new perspective that even lifelong fans will not have seen. For the first time Kurt is brought to life as a man using unseen footage and audio that might not have ever seen the light of day otherwise.
Yes, it falters with its structural issues but that really doesn’t hinder it. What Morgan offers is a raw and revelatory. It’s uncomfortable but it’s the truth and it offers closure, not just to the legions of fans that have come since 1994 but those who were closest to him. Most of all though he succeeds in showing us a man who was worth a hell of a lot to an entire generation of people and millions of people since. Tragically the only person unaware of his worth was himself.