The story of Kurt Cobain is a well trodden one, immortalised several times in the film medium – such as Nick Broomfield’s murder investigation Kurt And Courtney (1998), Gus van Sant’s semi-ficticious imagining of Kurt’s Last Days (2005) and AJ Schnack’s more faithful documentary in About a Son (2006) – as well as in biographies, as people remain endlessly fascinated with the enigmatic front man and one of American rock music’s key icons. One would ask what, in 2015, a whole 21 years after the singer-songwriter of Nirvana’s suicide, is left to say about the subject, but the answer in Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck, is that this is the first fully authorised account, with full access and backing from wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain who serve as executive producers and in the case of the former, as an interviewee.
Much like Kurt’s posthumously published diaries, this instantly contains a pretty questionable situation in whether it is right to invade the privacy of a dead person, regardless of their celebrity status, especially when said person struggled so publicly with being launched into the brightest of media spotlights. One of the clearest things we ascertain from Montage, if it wasn’t well known already, is that Cobain struggled massively with being heralded as some sort of voice of a generation, when he largely hated the generation he was supposed to be leading, which is displayed through archive footage of his awkward interviews and glib sound-bytes. So one can’t help but wonder that the reclusive artist would most likely not approve of having his life sprayed out on a screen, but in death it was perhaps a sad inevitability.
Moral questions aside, Montage of Heck is a questionable piece of film making in style and form, let alone in problematic, potentially invasive footage. To it’s credit, the film introduces Kurt’s upbringing excellently through home video footage and interviews with his parents and first girlfriend, scored by a sweet, lullaby version of Nirvana’s classic “All Apologies”, giving us Cobain’s difficult childhood and adolescence with great, interesting detail. This gives us an interesting context which, again, while perhaps not that surprising to anyone, paints a well rounded picture of what growing up in Aberdeen, Washington was like.
But once the film moves towards the success of Nirvana, context and narrative more or less goes on the window. While Morgan does well to avoid martyring Cobain, and with it his biggest problem with becoming a celebrity, he instead relies way too heavily on the idea of using Kurt’s diaries as a gateway to his genius. In the film’s way too long second half, a staggeringly wasted amount of screen-time is devoted to visualising Kurt’s scribblings, be they lyrics, phrases or drawings, as some sort of explanation for Nirvana’s against-the-odds world conquering music. This happens to the point of tedium, especially as the disappearance of context or a narrator to guide us through these tormented images. While I respect the choice of excluding a narrative voice for fear of wanting to impose a direction of thinking upon his audience, Morgan loses almost all impact by just simply relying on re-creating Cobain’s “Montage of Heck” (which we learn is a audio collage he created during his early days as a musician and artist).
This means, returning to the questionable personal footage, by the time the big reveal of Kurt and Courtney’s home life is given to us, there’s little to no effect left to be had, so exhausting is the endless animations or out-takes of music videos and sound-checks, sound-tracked by saccharine, operatic covers of the band’s most famous songs. While there are some revealing moments; largely that a couple addicted to heroin still seem mostly legitimately happy and stable bringing up a child, the general effect of this is pretty numb by the time it arrives on screen.
In the end, Montage of Heck, fails to leave much of an impression as an original piece of work. The film’s best moments are generally found in already familiar footage, the place where Nirvana and especially Kurt Cobain always looked his most comfortable; on stage, performing. There is amusing and enjoyable archival footage to be had from the band’s interviews, as well as some revealing answers from present-day Courtney Love and Kurt’s mother, but in the end, the focus of Montage of Heck does not highlight how the band came to be such an influential force, changing the face of rock music forever, but on the sad mental condition of the genius artist Kurt Cobain.
While there is nothing wrong with focusing with the band’s (at the time) easily most recognisable member, the idea that we are supposed to gain entry to man’s mind from endless animations of his notes is ineffectual when very few of us ever really knew the man himself. While Cobain comes off as sympathetic and humane in the footage, his whole ethos (as highlighted by the film) is not to be concerned with his creative process, but to appreciate and relate and judge his published work only, which this film is frustratingly at odds with.