May 6, 2015 Music
Towards the end of the new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, a home movie shows Courtney Love rocking baby Frances Bean as she and husband Kurt Cobain sing “Amazing Grace”. New parents, an infant daughter, a tranquil lullaby – what could be sweeter? Quite a lot, it turns out. As they sing, Courtney’s bullhorn wail fights for dominance over Kurt’s deliberately off-key harmonies. They’re both high as kites. It’s excruciating.
That scene comes after an extended sequence in which a narcotised Kurt struggles to keep from nodding off while Courtney jabs at Frances’ hair with a pair of scissors. Before that, we’d watched history’s most famous rockstar couple hang out in bed, hang out in the bathroom, then hang out in bed some more. We’d seen Courtney’s breasts and Kurt’s sore-covered back and an agonisingly close close-up of the two of them kissing. But it was during “Amazing Grace” that I knew I’d had enough. The guilty pleasure of intruding on a private moment, that Facebook-stalking thrill, was gone. Prurience, I realised, can only take you so far.
“I don’t think there’ll ever be another movie about an icon that’s this raw or intimate,” director Brett Morgen has said about Montage of Heck. And he’s probably right – with exclusive access to a vast archive of unreleased music and video footage, photography, journals and artwork, Morgen has assembled a portrait of Kurt Cobain, artist, that’s as eclectic and challenging as the man himself.
But there’s intimate and then there’s suffocating, and Montage of Heck veers too often in the direction of the latter. Morgen relies heavily on excerpts from Kurt’s personal journals and it seems there’s nary a to-do list, doodle or deep thought that doesn’t make it onto the screen. Over the course of more than two hours, we see Kurt’s cartoons and illustrations, and listen to his demo recordings, early sound experiments and audio diary entries, including a disturbing story linking his first sexual experience to his first suicide attempt. All this stuff evidences both a prolific artistic talent and a deeply damaged psyche, sure. But we’re hit over the head with it harder than Kurt at his guitar-smashing best.
The film’s scrapbook technique does give us some gorgeous moments. The pre-Nirvana days are brought vividly to life by Hisko Hulsing’s hand-drawn animation, while Kurt’s previously unreleased version of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is as lovely as “Amazing Grace” is grotesque. Early Super 8 movies show Kurt as a rambunctious blond-haired moppet, and the contrast with his last heroin-soaked days is almost unbearably sad.
But if you’re looking to learn more about Nirvana, or even about Kurt the musician, this isn’t the documentary for you. The release of Nevermind and In Utero are referenced only in passing; debut album Bleach doesn’t even warrant a mention. Neither does the arrival of Dave Grohl as drummer, a directorial decision likely tied to Grohl’s absence as an interviewee.
The talking heads that do appear (Kurt’s parents and sister, his first girlfriend, Nirvana’s Kris Novoselic and wife Courtney Love) have interesting things to say about the Kurt they knew. Their contributions are rare moments of calm – and context – among the confusion. I wished there were more of them, while understanding that they’re ultimately beside the point. Montage of Heck isn’t a biography, it’s a dive into the darkest recesses of a very troubled mind, and as near to Kurt Cobain in his own words as we’re going to get. It’s an admirable, overwhelming achievement. I just wish it knew when to say when.
Montage of Heck is in cinemas from May 7.