Rather than portraying a typical subjective documentary on one of rock and roll’s most beloved icon, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck did just the opposite, it moved from the inside out. A film eight years in the making, Morgen sought to present a visceral, and honest depiction of Kurt’s life as he had seen it through the large canvas of raw material at his disposal. During the Q&A Skype chat with the director post viewing at the Hot Docs Festival, Morgen had said he was never really a die hard fan of Nirvana, but after going through a storage locker containing several boxes of archival footage, artwork, journals with over 4000 entries and over 200 hours of uncut, unreleased audio recordings given to him by Kurt’s mom in the first fourteen years of his life, and the latter from Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean, he had become fascinated in wanting to tell a story through Kurt’s eyes, and how he had experienced the world, rather than how the media has often depicted his life.
What resulted was a raw, surging, no holds bar thrill ride through the life and times of a man everyone was curious to understand, but could never fully grasp. The film succeeds in emotional depth by portraying Kurt’s life through childhood home videos and interviews with his mom, dad, and sister. In setting up the film to capture the beautiful energy of people that surrounded Kurt at birth, the dramatic shift occurs when he grows up and his overactive energy becomes too much for his family to contain. Showcasing the frustrating absence and lack of a foundational home that engendered Kurt’s youth and adolescence after his parents divorce – moving from various family members’ residences due to his behaviour – the burning need for a creative outlet became the fire to start his musical career.
Morgen adds wonderful layers of Kurt’s own art throughout the film; whether they be archival drawings, montages of his sketches, or journal entries, all visually enhanced through graphics processing and animation, the viewer is truly enriched into the mind of the creator. Animated sequences of various moments of Kurt’s life are also montaged throughout the film with archival voiceovers to enrich the experience of being on the journey with him through those transitional points of entropy, clarity, creative stimulation and progress. This form of storytelling not only delivers the humility we don’t often see through his interviews in Nirvana, or media tabloid representations of who he actually was as a human. For as much jovial whimsy and wonder he had shown the world, the film is also fair in its portrayal of Kurt’s lows and often-depressive states of mind; the multitude of journal entries, and hand written words paired with the right choice of Nirvana songs created an emotional resonance of the pain and agony he had felt throughout his life.
The saving grace that captured poignant moments were not only how he expressed himself fully through his music, but the important role of family he had gained with Courtney Love and the birth of their daughter. The home videos of Kurt and Courtney brought a very intimate perspective of the couple outside of the limelight and often haunting portrayals of their relationship, which though had its rocky moments, still contained the overpowering foundation of love and affection, this mirrored with the addition of Francis exhibited a brighter side of Kurt and his willingness to reinvent himself as a father who would do anything for his daughter.
Packed with an original score by Jeff Danna, as well as a beautiful sound mixing of Nirvana songs, the truth is, as Kurt says in an interview, “all in the music man. It’s all in the music.” Which is where it remains and continues to excel in the minds of those who were around at the time or generations of listeners to come. Montage of Heck takes you into the soul of Kurt Cobain, and only by experiencing his journey in this dynamic way do we gain the pleasure of a life through such beauty.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will premiere on HBO on May 4th, with a limited theatre run, it opened at Bloor Hot Docs in Toronto.