Cobain: Montage of Heck – an intimate portrait of a life that burned briefly but brightly

Montage of Heck: Kurt Cobain

Montage of Heck: Kurt Cobain

The highly anticipated Kurt Cobain documentary does not disappoint, Getintothis’ James Bowman considers it a film about life, not death.

Twenty-one years ago, this writer was lying in bed listening to music when his mum came in with a cup of tea.

They’ve just said on the radio that he’s killed himself,” she said, pointing to the poster of Nirvana that was on the wall.

For a “Kennedy moment”, it was remarkably mundane. There was merely a semi-audible grunt and a moan along the lines of having to get up for work. It was a typically teenage response, but then Nirvana – as the incredibly moving Montage of Heck proves – were the classic teenage band.

Many, including us, felt a deep personal connection to Cobain at the time and as this new documentary about Cobain unfolds, these feelings come flooding back.

Looking again at it all two decades later is a strange experience but crucially not an embarrassing one. This isn’t some blushing rewind through the pages of your diary or a glimpse of your first crush. Nirvana were and are more than that because there was always more to Nirvana. Yes, Cobain’s lyrics spoke of fear, confusion addiction and angst. But he was also a master of humour and a kind stark, brutal sincerity that cut through the bullshit and is still incredibly inspirational today. Watching it makes your spirits leap.

Crucial to the film’s power is that it is not a straight “rockumentary”. Director Brett Morgen has apparently been allowed unlimited access to Cobain‘s diaries, scribbles and sound recordings and weaves these in and out of the narrative in an almost hallucinatory way.

There’s also the home videos. Maybe it’s a peculiarly American thing, but Cobain seems to have spent most of his early years being filmed by his parents. Shots of him singing and playing the guitar as a toddler are incredibly poignant. Then, all of a sudden, the home filming stops. And that’s where the trouble begins.

The divorce of Cobain‘s parents is painted in bleak reality as the turning point in his short, sad life. Watching his father’s face as he struggles through a painful interview while Kurt’s stepmom rakes over the details of her adopted son’s nomadic existence is painful indeed.

Kurt‘s own reminisces on a pathetically botched suicide attempt and the loss of his virginity are almost too much to bear and it’s a revelatory moment when punk rock arrives and saves both Kurt and the audience from further despair.

The early shots of Nirvana themselves jamming in a succession of basements before progressing to playing gigs in a succession of basements are thrilling in the extreme. Even at this stage the key elements of their incredible sound are in place: the Cobain scream, the mix of Lennon-esque melody with Stooges noise and the sheer magnetism of the three men on stage. At one point we hear Kurt singing The Beatles  And I Love Her. It’s a huge testament to the band that it sounds like a Nirvana original. What also stands out is Cobain‘s work ethic: notebooks are full of lists of equipment to use, costs, things to do and rehearsal schedules. He was no slacker.

Some reviewers have complained that there has been little traditional analysis of the band’s musical output or indeed just how they became the biggest band in the world in 1992. Instead Morgen lets the madness of the six months that followed the release of Smells Like Teen Spirit speak for itself. Bassist Krist Novoselic is a warm and honest narrator from the eye of the hurricane and the images of the trio mugging and gurning their way through a succession of interviews with foreign journalists provide some much needed light relief.

The introduction of Courtney Love feels like the other turning point in both Kurt‘s and the film’s trajectory. What ever you think of her, she stalks this film like a malevolent phantom as we watch her’s and Kurt‘s lives and bodies intertwine on screen. The footage is raw and uncompromising but it is certainly not just the home videos of a pair of smack heads. Instead we see them kiss, plot and dote over their new baby daughter in a fashion which belies the many sordid stories which emerged at the time and are framed here as one of the key causes of Cobain‘s eventual demise.

Nirvana‘s Unplugged performance acts as a fitting epitaph to a film and a life as we get a tantalising glimpse of the band Nirvana might have become. Could there have been an elegiac Automatic For The People around the corner? Might they have become alt-country godfathers?  Both questions remain unanswered and as Cobain’s world weary sigh at the climax of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? drifts from the screen he seems more far away than ever.

His death itself is mentioned only at the film’s credits which feels only right. This is a film about a life that burned briefly and brightly. We should be thankful it shone on so many of us.