Heading into the screening for Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, I found myself thinking “Does the world really need another Kurt Cobain documentary?” Short of Courtney Love confessing to Kurt’s murder, you’d think we’d already got this one covered. Then, 15 minutes later I was glued to my seat, playing some righteous air drums, thankful I’d found a seat private enough not to annoy everyone.
Yes, it’s been covered, ad nauseam, but there aren’t too many moments in the history of music when one era so definitively turned into another. Usually change happens gradually, but 1991 felt like one thing, and then whap! “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and the entire music industry changed. It’s almost cheesy to even recognize this at this point, because the 90s are nothing if not overanalyzed, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by transitional periods. Paul Thomas Anderson talked about this in a recent interview, the way Boogie Nights covers the era when film turned to video, and Inherent Vice covers 60s optimism turning to 70s paranoia – watching a paradigm shift abruptly and people scramble to adjust is always great drama. Hair metal becoming grunge was one of those times.
Of course, that’s what interests me about Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. The story itself is much more interested in The Cult of Kurt. That always seems to be the most common angle to Nirvana stories – so tragedy! Much heroin! Very music! But to its credit, parts of the Cobain story in Montage of Heck do seem fresh. Montage of Heck‘s selling point is that filmmaker Brett Morgen had exclusive access to never-before-scene home video and Kurt’s collection of personal art, some of which he turns into stylized animations. There’s some insight there, like with Kurt’s story about trying to kill himself by laying on train tracks when he was still a teenager, and the particular view into his brain you get from his notebook entries, this weird mix of artistic vomit and to-do lists for the aspiring rock star. He was so obsessed with pastiche and montage and “subversive” parody of pop culture at a time when that all still felt fresh. He reminds you of Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites. Asked to record a bumper for MTV on the Nevermind tour, Kurt smirks, saying “I’m Kurt Cobain, and you’re watching empty TV,” clearly pleased with himself.
It’d be a fun exercise to watch Montage of Heck and Reality Bites back to back and imagine Troy Dyer as the less clever, Mr. Brainwash version of Kurt Cobain. “This girl is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” God, that guy was an asshole.
The strongest parts of Montage of Heck are the insights into the atmospheric conditions that created Nevermind’s weird little pop culture maelstrom. The way the film explores what Aberdeen was like in the late 60s when Cobain was born and the kind of lifestyle he was living before Nirvana broke offer genuine insight into a story that’s already been dry humped more than Courtney Love’s monitor amp.
It was probably inevitable that the film couldn’t maintain that kind of fascination once it gets to the part where Kurt becomes a big star, because then it becomes that same old story. A guy who couldn’t handle high school has to try to handle being the most famous rock star in the world, and the fame, and the drugs, and Courtney Love’s original boobs, and blah blah blah. You feel weird watching Kurt and Courtney’s home videos that were clearly never meant to be seen, not necessarily because it feels like a violation, but because they’re not that insightful or interesting. There’s a Patton Oswalt bit about how he’d have to kill himself if someone ever taped him singing the kinds of weird songs he sings to himself while he’s alone in the car, and a lot of these newly public home movies are the equivalent of that. Kurt and Courtney dicking around and singing songs about the curtains, probably high or drunk for most of them.
The old cliché is to get to the end of the movie and say “Wow! I can’t believe he was only 27!” But in Montage of Heck, it can’t come as a surprise, after so much footage of Kurt doing all the asinine shit 27-year-olds do when they’re hungover in their underwear. I wish it was more about the epochal moments of Nirvana, a little more about the music and the subculture that it grew out of and subsequently spawned, and less about Kurt’s weird home movies and the Enduring Mystique of Kurt. But I realize that’s kind of an unfair thing to ask of a movie that advertises being about Kurt’s weird home movies right in the title.
The most interesting thing about the latter half of the movie is how much Kurt’s life became the kind of post-modernist pastiche piece he favored in his art work. He fully realized what a cliché the drug-addicted rock star who hates fame but wants to be loved was and hated it, yet still managed to kill himself at age 27, the ultimate rock cliché, ripping off Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al. Kurt and Courtney were always hyper-aware of their public perception, and at times that seems like the only thing they talked about. Magazines were calling Kurt and Courtney the new Sid and Nancy like it was a revelation, even though Courtney had already been in the movie Sid And Nancy (1986). You could write a strong sociology thesis about how all the faded grunge typeface and distressed fashion of the 90s reflected the fact that pop culture then was this sort of deliberately distorted echo of earlier pop culture. Actually, don’t, I’m sure it’s already been written. (By the way, “I’m sure it’s already been written” could be the unofficial motto of the grunge era, at which point you play a smirking punk cover of the Meow Mix theme song).