Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
In 1994, I was living with three other people in a house on 77th and Sunnyside in Seattle, writing in my spare time, and schlepping at a bookstore warehouse. One day that spring, I was biking home from work when I turned onto Woodlawn Avenue near Gregg’s Green Lake Cycles and ran into a cloud of exhaust. I quickly saw the cause: a riderless motorcycle putt-putt-putting by the curb next to a café. I’m sure my face screwed up into a kind of “What kind of asshole would leave his bike...?” when in rapid succession: 1) I noticed the tall lanky dude in leathers sitting at the café’s outside table; 2) recognized him as Krist Novoselic of Nirvana; 3) saw how bereft he looked; and 4) knew why. Just a few days earlier, Kurt Cobain had taken his life. That’s about when Novoselic noticed me noticing him. My face must’ve still looked annoyed because his face took on a combative look. It challenged mine to say or do something. I simply nodded and kept biking. Anything else, even a kind word, would’ve felt intrusive.
In Brett Morgen’s powerful documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Novoselic, older and balder, still looks bereft. It’s 25 years later, and he’s still wondering what the hell happened. In a sense, that’s what the doc is about.
There aren’t many talking heads here. Per the title, it’s mostly montages and mash-ups from family photos and 8-milimeter film, plus audio of Kurt’s younger days set to animation, along with illustrations out of Cobain’s numerous notebooks. This last might be the most interesting gateway into his mind. All the things he writes. The things he writes again and again. Sometimes it’s breakthrough stuff, such as the word NIRVANA appearing as he’s listening to punk rock in Aberdeen. Sometimes it’s sadly prophetic. “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind,” for example. Or more explicitly: “The joke’s on you so kill yourself.”
The doc’s title comes from one of Cobain’s audiotape mashups, made in Aberdeen in the 1980s, and when you think about—and I really hadn’t—you realize that almost everything he did was montage. His lyrics are snippets. Sometimes they’re epigrams (“I’m worse at what I do best”); other times, incomprehensible (“Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet”). Even the chorus to his most famous song, the song that sprung us all from the awful ‘80s, is a montage of thoughts that only form cohesiveness through the drive, energy and anger of the music:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
I knew the basics of Cobain: Aberdeen, punk scene, reluctant rock star, stomach troubles, heroin, Courtney Love, boom. “Montage” fills in the blanks.
He was born four years later than I, enjoyed a happy childhood as I did; then his parents divorced as mine did. It’s shocking seeing some of these similarities. We shared pop culture. As a kid he drew H.R. Pufnstuf and as a teen recorded the Brady Bunch singing “Sunshine Day.” This last was surely ironic. At the same time, there is a sense that, having lost his idyllic childhood, he wanted it back. He wanted normalcy.
Instead, after the divorce, he was shunted from parent to parent to grandparent, but nobody could take him for more than a few weeks. There is some suggestion of hyperactivity. There is some suggestion of some form of Ritalin that didn’t take.
I tend to think of angry guys as tough guys, but Cobain was hyper-sensitive. He hated and feared humiliation and couldn’t stand negative reviews or being psychoanalyzed. In high school, he wasn’t just not popular; he was reviled and isolated. There’s a tale told in animation—narrated by him?—of his doofus friends visiting a low-IQ fat woman who lived alone, and mocking her and distracting her while they swiped liquor from her basement. When Cobain realizes what’s happening we expect (thanks in part to Hollywood) that he’ll break free of these idiots, or somehow come to the woman’s aid; instead he returns by himself to have sex with her—his first sexual experience. When word gets out, he’s mocked in school as the “retard fucker.” It’s a small, sad story that leaves a bad taste, but it’s redeemed by its brutal honesty.
Most of the talking heads are members of Kurt’s family—mom, sister, dad, stepmom—and they navigate us through his childhood; but once he’s living with (and off of) his girlfriend, we delve into his mind with the audio/animation and the notebooks springing to life. It’s an effective treatment. We don’t get Novoselic saying, “I met Kurt when ...” or “We decided on the name when ...” It’s Kurt’s thoughts and stories and homemade audio leading to Sub-POP and rock posters and the beautiful burst of Nirvana’s cover of “Molly’s Lips.” The way Morgen tells the story is a little like Nirvana’s music (quiet verse leading to angry chorus), but it also gives us a sense of what it’s like to go from nowhere to everywhere, as Cobain did. One moment Nirvana is doing a promo show at a record store on the Ave, the next they’re playing stadium concerts. The huge crowds, shot from the stage, have never seemed more monstrous.
About a Girl
Cobain’s rise is fascinating—as rises tend to be—but then it becomes the Kurt and Courtney show and gets dull fast. To me, there’s not many people less interesting than 1) happy loving couples, and 2) junkies. I would’ve cut some of this. But the rest is powerful and inventive.
We’re left with questions. The stomach troubles that led to the heroin use—surely he saw a doctor about this once he became rich. Or was he too far gone on heroin by then? Morgen seems to imply that he finally took his life because of hyper-sensitivity over Courtney Love merely thinking about cheating on him—we end with Cobain playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged—but is this a reach, given everything else? The fame, the stomach troubles, the heroin—a word, by the way, he never learned to spell, adding a Quayle-esque “e” to the end every time. Left unmentioned, but jarring to me as I watched, is how much his mom looks like what Courtney Love might look like in 20 years.
There’s a lot that’s disturbing in the doc but a beautiful honesty, too. It’s about as up-close a look as you’ll get of a major cultural figure. It’s almost claustrophobic.