Review: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ definitively doesn’t define the Nirvana icon

The legacy of Kurt Cobain is one of maddening genius, maddening potential and the maddening disappointment and betrayal of how much of that potential went unfulfilled when he took his own life at 27.

Maybe that's why my immediate reaction to Brett Morgen's Sundance premiere documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” was visceral pleasure and appreciation, but a maddening uncertainty about what else I was supposed to take from the film. 

And maybe that's why after five more minutes of contemplating “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” I was able ponder the possibility that Morgen wants his documentary to be definitive exactly be virtue of being so undefinitive. 

An often spectacular piece of multi-media assemblage, takes viewers on a journey at least somewhat into Kurt Cobain's brain and into his life and if that leaves you wanting more… Well, of course it does.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” begins with practically feigned happiness in Aberdeen, Washington. Cobain's mother talks about how good things were, somehow tying the good times to the end of some war or another, even though it was 1967. [Cobain's mother is, in general, not an especially reliable source of information. The conventional narrative on Cobain is that his parents' divorce messed him up, which is almost certainly true, but the documentary has Wendy saying that the divorce was especially distressing because nobody got divorces at the time and it takes roughly 10 seconds to look at divorce rates in America in 1974 to know how silly that is.] Cobain was a happy child and his happiness was well-documented, with enough home movies featuring Young Kurt and various toy musical instruments to suggest some prescience.

“Montage of Heck” is about the representation and self-representation of Kurt Cobain, a fascinating process for any figure whose entire fame was based on modes of self-representation. In Cobain's early youth, there's a shift between the parent-provided depictions of happy-and-adjusted Kurt Cobain and his earliest forms of self-representation, as we begin to see the wealth of material Morgen had available to him and how he chose to use them.

Through animation by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing, fused with Cobain's audio recordings and storytelling, we're able to see moments that are both unflattering and are the sort of thing would never get filmed even in today's  film-everything-culture. The animation and Cobain's words show us his ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a girl with some measure of learning disability, we experience an early suicide attempt on train-tracks, but we also experience his earliest creative endeavors. At the same time, we also see his dark notebooks, full of sketches and song lyrics come to life, capturing both the hints of inspiration, but also the darkness in his psyche that could only ever be given a partial outlet.

Nirvana just sorta happens — more on that in a bit, I suspect — but as Cobain begins to find a venue for articulation, the representation shifts to the external again, as we see early house party and concert footage, as well as bahind-the-scenes footage from such rather seminal moments as the filming of the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and other moments that represent the start of the world's awareness of Cobain and his talent. This is the beginning out Morgen's filtering of the way fans and the media began to see and understand Cobain. While a select few talking heads like ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander repeat a few basic truths about Cobain — He wanted to be loved, he hated to be humiliated and he moved into drug use as physical ailments, including stomach problems, joined his emotional problems — this is piece of the documentary that's about repurposing and recontextualizing of moments and imagery that may be familiar to fans.

The key piece of the documentary, and the part that will probably generate the most varied reactions, is the shift back to self-representation that occurs after Cobain met, fell in loved with and married Courtney Love. Always depicted as the Sid and Nancy of Grunge, Kurt and Courtney spent a lot of time filming each other and the footage, much of it from the six month break Kurt took to recharge post-“Nevermind” (or just to do heroin), is what many or possibly most fans will be excited to see and it really captures every shading of a relationship that was loving, funny, giving and clearly toxic. It's a dynamic that feels more and more uncomfortable, more and more eyebrow-raising as Courtney becomes pregnant and gives birth to Frances Bean. Some of the home movie footage is adorable, showcasing loving and attentive parents, but other parts of the footage are just plain sad and terrifying. 

“Taking sides” has always been key to how fans and journalists/filmmakers have responded to Kurt and Courtney. When it comes to this footage, Morgen's concentration is on the twisted intimacy between the two of them and you won't ever feel like he was afraid to expose the vulnerability, sometimes embarrassing, that Courtney was showing, which may have been a concern for some given Love and France Bean Cobain's involvement in the documentary. But some viewers are likely to feel that Love, a cleaned up and occasionally forthcoming talking head, is definitely allowed to duck out on certain parts of her drug use both during her pregnancy and immediately after. Morgen includes news stories suggesting Frances was born addicted to drugs and talking about the challenges they faced to retain custody of their daughter, but after Love says once that she quit using at an nonspecific point in her pregnancy, that angle is just dropped. To me, it's important, especially since it mitigates every subsequent second of Kurt-and-Courtney-as-parents footage. There's a warmth and a chill to this chapter of the documentary and I assume different viewers will read its transparency in different ways.

Know going in that this is, as the title says, a Kurt Cobain documentary and not a documentary about Nirvana. If Cobain's journals or audio recordings contained any thoughts about his fellow bandmates, any thoughts about the evolution of their music, any thoughts about the dynamics and his placement within a trio, they're not included in “Montage of Heck.” Period interviews with the band at least acknowledge that they were a collective unit and not The Kurt Cobain Experience, but they don't go much further. Krist Novoselic is a featured talking head, but he's amiably boring in that way Krist Novoselic generally is. Dave Grohl appears only in old footage. After the premiere, Morgen explained that due to scheduling, he was only able to interview Grohl a couple weeks ago and that he didn't have time to get any of that into the Sundance cut. Will Grohl suddenly pop up a few times when “Montage of Heck” premieres on HBO this spring? It's possible and it's also possible that his presence will Nirvanify the documentary a little bit more, though I can't say if that'll make any real difference, especially since “Montage of Heck” is already 135 minutes.

Also know going in that Morgen really, really didn't want this documentary to be about Kurt Cobain's death. Morgen so aggressively wanted to avoid wallowing in the misery that there's a hard cut from one of the better “Unplugged” songs to a black title card and then the credits. For me, it's needlessly abrupt, almost petulant. Even if you accept Morgen's premise that Cobain's life effectively ended with his suicide attempt in Rome, it's odd to underplay an event the film and Cobain's work had clearly been leading to. There's a transition in which Cobain's fatalism went from something scribbled in a notebook to a life-ending imperative and “Montage of Heck” can't quite put a finger on when or why that was. 

And that's maddening, appropriately so.

That's more an emotion that comes reflecting on “Montage of Heck” afterwards. In the moment, the documentary is loud and aggressive as it could hardly be otherwise. I didn't count the number of Nirvana songs in the documentary, but they're copious and featured in a number of different arrangements, covering each of the band's albums, with a concentration on the hits, but not exclusively. Fans who own all of Nirvana's published material will be most eager to get any soundtrack that includes Jeff Danna's symphonic arrangements of a number of Nirvana songs, music that has an almost keep-you-guessing fun as you realize which songs Danna is using and how he's treating them.

Danna's score is one of several embodiments of the point I made at the beginning of the documentary, emphasizing the definitive power and brilliance of Cobain's music without striving to redefine the songs themselves. They're part of a complicate tapestry that represent, but don't solve a complicated man. Looking for a solution or an answer to Kurt Cobain won't make “Montage of Heck” more enjoyable, but a real fan probably wouldn't expect that anyway.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”