Sundance 2015 Review: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Will Drain You
Alone, perhaps, amongst all the cinematic forms, documentaries have not only the power but very often the responsibility to fucking piss you off. And like pretty much all power, this version comes with a great responsibility. Filmmakers are right to inspire outrage over social injustice, ecological crises and earth-shattering scandals, but they must infuriate their audiences without losing them entirely in a scad of empathic vitriol.
Brett Morgen, who previously directed the documentaries The Kid Stays in the Picture and Chicago 10, pushes the limits of our emotional tolerance in his latest feature, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Fortunately for all of us, he never completely breaks down the barriers between projecting anguish and inflicting sadism. His intimate look at the troubled mind of the Nirvana frontman, who tragically committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 27, is both heartbreaking and aggravating, for all the right reasons.
With what certainly appears to be unprecedented access to Kurt Cobain’s journals, sketches, home movies, audio recordings and family, Montage of Heck paints a sorrowful picture. Cobain’s righteous anger stemmed, as we discover in the documentary, from a troubled but not altogether traumatic family life, and emerged through his music as a plaintive yet thoughtful wail of post-pubescent misery. Cobain’s words, often spoken by Cobain himself, are the misbegotten tongue-waggings of a suburban poet, not mature enough to become sage, but always honest enough to evoke sympathy, empathy and rhythmic headbangs.
Although Brett Morgen succumbs too often to the temptation to animate Cobain’s drawings, usually for the exact same dramatic effect, his interviews with Cobain’s family, first girlfriend, bass player Krist Novoselic and wife Courtney Love present memorable tales of admiration, adoration, worry and regret. (Notably absent is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who went on to more musical success as the frontman for The Foo Fighters.) These oral records, and especially Cobain’s audio recordings, are inviting and seem genuine.
But more genuine is the footage unearthed of Kurt Cobain’s home life with Courtney Love. The frontperson of the rock group Hole was often vilified by the press – and still frequently is – for her turbulent, heroin-addicted relationship with Cobain, but in their intimate moments fans are finally likely to catch a glimpse of just how good they could be together. Their private conversations about the pitfalls of fame and their sitcom-worthy ramblings about teen idol worship are humanizing to an extreme. The footage of Love apparently on heroin while pregnant with Cobain’s child is startling, but the home videos of the married playing with their newborn and giving Frances Cobain her first haircut provides a powerful contrast. The good and the bad, together, largely uncompromised.
And yet watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck still results in outrage, and of various sorts. The sympathy Morgen’s documentary elicits for Cobain’s fragile ego leads to a justifiable furor over a world in which such a sensitive soul could fall so hard into drug addiction and eventual suicide. Just as infuriating is the experience of sitting through over two hours of wall-to-wall Nirvana songs, only to emerge back into the world of 21st century auto-tuned claptrap, where the most popular songs in America no longer seem to express real, powerful feelings. We spend so much time with Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck that his death once again stings, and knowing what we know now about the musical landscape in which we eventually arrived after his passing makes Brett Morgen’s documentary even more poignant and sad.