Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
I was never really a *big* fan of Nirvana, or the philosophical lyrics of their lead singer Kurt Cobain. I mean, I was under ten years old when they reached the height of their popularity. So I was much more into listening to Ren & Stimpy albums than I was into the grunge scene. But in my 20s, I gained a sort of general fondness for a chunk of Nirvana's songs. At the very least, I really liked all of the covers on that Unplugged album.
So I enjoyed that this documentary came along, because I had never really sought out much about Kurt Cobain before then. I just knew the basics; what the music sounded like, that they were the most popular band in the world at one point, Courtney Love may or may not have thrown a wrench in things, and then Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at 27, amidst controversy/conspiracy.
This was a rather stylish doc, using mostly (pretty great) home video footage of Cobain as a kid, him with his band, and later him with his family. It also relies heavily on using a concerningly large number of handwritten notes and drawings from Cobain, impressively spanning his entire life, and then the director took the liberty of animating and livening up that stuff in a really stylish way. I'm not sure I fully enjoyed the way everything was animated, because I couldn't fully decipher if this was what was going on in Kurt's head as he was writing it, or merely just what the director *assumed* what was going on in Kurt's head, if that makes sense? There was a lot of implied tone, I guess I'm saying.
But I got plenty of valuable, and really interesting information about the guy's life from watching this. He was a messed up dude, from a pretty early age. I guess you don't write hundreds of pages of incoherent ramblings and frightening drawings if you're a sane person. I think we was a guy who just had a LOT on his mind, and he tried his best to get it out there, if not only for his sake.
But perhaps the biggest flaw of the documentary, and it's a pretty huge one, is that it ends of kind of a happy note, but then cuts to text saying "One month later, Kurt committed suicide." ROLL CREDITS. Wait, what?! You're telling me that there's no insight to be had on the one part of his life that everyone wants insight on? I guess I can forgive if there is literally nothing to be said because there's literally no information on it, but c'mon! This wasn't a compelling conclusion. He was suicidal his whole life, but I guess we'll never know what finally topped him over the edge...
Well, actually, now that I think about it, earlier in the documentary, Courtney Love tells a story about how he tried to kill himself because he thought she was going to cheat on him... So if he had actually died in that attempt, we'd have pretty solid, kind of dumb logic behind why he died. I'm saying that I wouldn't be surprised if he killed himself over something weird and trivial like that, because he was a super sensitive dude who overreacted a lot, and not because like he was making a grand statement about how society has torn apart his soul or something. Also, he was a crazy heroin addict.
Now, to bring this review closer to an end, I'll just blurt out the rest of the random thoughts that I jotted down about the documentary...
-Cobain seemed to have a real hatred for Guns N Roses. He mentions them several times over the course of the film in a mocking, sarcastic way. It was pretty funny.
-They got a ton of people really close to Kurt to interview for this... So they *had* to have asked Dave Grohl, and he just declined to be in it, right? I wonder what the story behind that is?
-I always kind of thought of Kurt Cobain as this older-and-more-weathered-than-me type person, because for most of my life I was younger than he was. But for the possibly the first time, I finally was watching him as this dumb 20-something kid. I guess that just means I'm getting older...
-It's kind of amazing just how much footage there is of Kurt and Courtney's personal home life. Like, a LOT of really intimate personal moments. They always had the camera running, I guess? But a lot of the footage was of the both of them doing something... So, who was holding the camera?
-On a similar note, the footage of Kurt holding and playing with his baby daughter Francis made me suuuuuuuper sad. Like, really depressed me. I can't even imagine what it would be like for Francis to watch this footage now, and see the young dad she never knew, usually zonked out on drugs, holding and loving her, while Courtney Love yells in their ears. It was a weird scene in that house.
-But seriously, Courtney Love is a really loud person. And she likes showing her boobs for no reason.
-Though, I am kind of convinced now after watching this that the theory that Courtney Love had something to do with murdering Kurt or something probably isn't the case (they don't talk about that in the documentary, but I've just heard it before). I mean, 1) she doesn't seem smart enough to pull something like that off and get away with it. And 2) I think Cobain was just a troubled guy, and had been his whole life. Kind of a dumb theory.
-Early, pre-record deal Nirvana kind of sucked.
To close this out, I'd say this doc is worth watching, even if you're like me and haven't really been all that invested in Nirvana or Kurt Cobain. It's entertaining and intriguing enough that I stayed up until 1:20 AM watching it, because I started watching it way too late, and didn't want to stop. But it's definitely not the greatest thing in the world, and it doesn't give you nearly as many answers as you'd like it to. Though, it's probably still worth it for all of Cobain's personal archives. It's available on HBO right now. Watch it if you want. Whatever. Nevermind.
8 out of 10
My guess about the sudden end is that nobody who participated in this would have, if it got any more detailed about the suicide than it did.
[Scott Roberts] "Whatever. Nevermind."
Well played, sir. Well played.
[Scott Roberts] "So they *had* to have asked Dave Grohl, and he just declined to be in it, right? I wonder what the story behind that is?"
A scheduling conflict. Dave's a busy guy, and was working on a documentary series for HBO that was pretty terrific, called Sonic Highways, following his directoral debut on a wonderful documentary called Sound City. He's a 100% legit filmmaker, and I highly recommend his work.
I was incredibly deeply attached to Nirvana, and even though I was in my mid-30s when Kurt passed, I was....devastated seems too strong a word for a loss that was neither personal nor epic....but in fact the loss felt both personal and epic.
If you haven't seen ALL OF the MTV's Unplugged with Nirvana, you need to track it down. It's a remarkable feat of TV-making, but you may not be able to comprehend the shock in context. They'd just released an album of really abrasive songs, both musically and lyrically, and to go acoustic with THOSE, rather than "the hits" (only one of which was played)
[Scott Roberts] "-Early, pre-record deal Nirvana kind of sucked."
Man, not to me. I thought that footage was astonishing. Absolutely mesmerizing. Maybe the highlight of the whole film from a musical perspective.
(It being after all not even vaguely a Nirvana documentary. Nirvana the band, and Kurt's experience of it, was a supporting character, so to speak, at best.)
The thing is that when Nirvana blew up with Nevermind, mainstream music had never heard anything like it. What amazed me most is that it was all there, from the very first time we see him and Krist playing a "show" for two people in the house. Even with his face glued to the wall so he could read the lyrics taped there, his power as a performer was all there, the riffs were all there, and the songs were very, very nearly all there too.
And it all grew from "all there" to beyond.
You should also note, Scott, that aside from the very, very beginning, the music wasn't at all in chronological order. The first song heard in the film is from Nirvana's last album, and they went back and forth in the catalog almost as incidental music. Indeed, some of the last album was as harsh as anything pre-record contract, just performed and recorded better.
[Scott Roberts] "So, who was holding the camera?"
Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, especially weird since he and Courtney once dated.
The film fails to make what I think is the central connection to the continuity of one of the film's key themes, Kurt's search for family and stability. His father shot a staggering amount of film footage, and it forms the visual spine of the documentary wrt the world's view of Kurt as a being, at times, of pure light. The contrast with his notebooks is the story of the film: the tension between what the world saw of him vs. what he chose to show the world, and what was in head vs. what he created.
So, my guess is that this was driven by Kurt. Courtney says she doesn't know why it was Eric, and I believe her -- because I think Kurt chose him because he knew his own defenses were down, and Eric could lower Courtney's defenses....leaving Kurt, Courtney, and Frances as the tableau that Kurt had longed for from his own childhood, with Eric playing the role, not of Kurt's father Don, but of the ever-present camera wielded by Don Cobain, on the same level of intimacy.
It's powerful stuff, and it's the major connection that I think Morgen missed.
Morgen does tell the story of Erlander sheepishly handing him the tapes, saying, "I have no idea what's on these." Because I suspect he felt as uncomfortable with his role as Courtney did of Eric's role....with the unspoken dynamic being that this was all being driven by Kurt, and Eric was probably spending as much energy as he could looking in the other direction.
All a guess of course, but the conclusion seems inevitable to me. I'd have explored it.
I mean, the irony is that the footage Eric captured BECAME a form of his notebooks, but with the opposite intent and the opposite effect, while also fulfilling the role that footage captured by Don had for him as a child. It was the presence of the camera as an object in his father's hand, almost a totem of his dream of a stable family. It's clear that Kurt never looked at most (any?) of what Eric shot, because what mattered (apparently) was the camera itself.
Hence me thinking that this is the thing Morgen blew. There was only this one, but I think it was a big one.
[Scott Roberts] "...then cuts to text saying "One month later, Kurt committed suicide." ROLL CREDITS. Wait, what?! You're telling me that there's no insight to be had on the one part of his life that everyone wants insight on? "
That was the point of the whole movie. The story of Kurt told by Kurt, a "Montage of Heck" compiled from bizarre mixtapes of freakish sounds, and journals and drawings that were equally engaging and disturbing.
For all that the notebooks could be disturbing, and he clearly had a lot of trouble for such a short life, he himself never gave insight into his demise. That's why it was so shocking to everyone. He seemed happy, and burning brightly, and in a lot of ways really was. So the LAST thing he left a record of was the extinguishing of his own creative spark. Words and pictures were pouring out of him in astonishing volume right up until the end.
Until they didn't, just days before.
It's why, even before his death, his disappearance was so shocking. He'd gone down so many dark holes, but had never VANISHED. And that was the story of his life. He VANISHED. He gave us no insight into it, and nobody else has any either. Not really. The closest anyone gets to it is Krist Novacelic's pained observation maybe 20 minutes in that he should have said something to Kurt, that they should have known.
But they couldn't have.
My (other) biggest frustration is that they never named the key insight, to the extent that there were any to find: bipolarity. There's never been a more visible case of manic depression, but people simply refuse to acknowledge it. Robin Williams was the second-most visible case, imo, and he denied it to the end.
Ironically, his role model in so many things was Jonathan Winters, who DID acknowledge his manic depression, and admitted himself to a mental hospital for four months in the early 60s. He never shook it off, but he was able to manage it because he treated it. Not that people getting treatment can't also be overwhelmed. Roughly half of bipolar folks attempt suicide, and roughly half of those "successfully attempt suicide," one of the more chilling phrases in the clinical lexicon. (It winds up at around 20%+.)
Maybe the excuse is that Kurt likewise never acknowledged himself as such...and it's conceivable that people around him still don't, because of the stigma attached to it, or the lack of understanding, or the simple observation that somebody that creative, energetic, charmismatic, witty, and loving couldn't possibly be mentally ill in a way that makes sense. The extreme hazard of undiagnosed, untreated, unsupported bipolarity in a nutshell.
Noting again that it often brings more force to bear than any amount of love or treatment can offset, even under the best circumstances.
Anywayyyyyy, I've spent a hours on this, and tried to trim it, but this is what I'm left with. A lot of holes and flimsy narrative, and little capacity for evaluating the film in any way other than filtering it through very deep, dark connections between narratives of varying degrees of existence.
None of which are objective.
And I'm probably ready to watch the rest of Montage tomorrow. So thanks.
Some other time, I'll suggest a proper playlist, as well as an extensive set of videos. For now, a clever splicing together of two very different takes of "In Bloom" from Nevermind.
A couple of additional points:
-- All of the principals interviewed in the film have spoken about Kurt's suicide at length, on many occasions. One of the best resources for both his life and death is the first book about Nirvana by one of my favorite writers, Michael Azerrad, called Come As You Are.
It was written while Kurt was alive, with his complete cooperation (but no oversight), as well as pretty much anyone else you can think of. Another chapter was added later, specifically to talk about Kurt's death.
Various of these folks have spoken about Kurt's death in other books and other documentaries, including Dave and Krist in Dave's documentaries.
So that's not the issue.
-- The larger issue is that Montage of Heck isn't "about" Kurt or Nirvana.
Another thing I'll point out in my role as critic is that the Executive Producer of the project is Frances Bean Cobain. Her specific goal was to avoid other people's opinions or perspective, all of which she was familiar with. What she wanted to was to get as close as possible to meeting her father.
As part of that effort, she didn't look at any of the raw material or cuts of the film until it was finished. It was a proper introduction.
re: the raw material: Brett Morgen sorted through 2000 hours of film, audio, and video, and 4000 pages of Kurt's writing -- with the goal of meaningfully introducing Kurt Cobain to his daughter for the first time.
And little in Kurt's journals, songwriting, or artwork referenced his death, which has been covered extensively in many, many venues.
We will likely never hear anything new on the subject of Kurt's death before the sun goes nova, whereas there's obviously more than enough media to create another solid handful of books, albums, and DVDs.
An album of never before heard songs -- not just demos or alternate takes, of which there's also a terrific sampling of on the deluxe reissues of the 3 proper albums, plus a couple of very good box sets -- is already announced for this summer, and there's surely a few more that can be tastefully released.
The Hendrix family has done a masterful job with this, releasing just a handful of the available material, well-packaged and well-documented. Based on Frances' first try at managing an independent curator, I think the Kurt's archives are likely in good hands.
-- I don't want to skip over the importance of Kurt himself not pointing to his death with blinking neon lights...or massive journal entries or drawings. It didn't come out of nowhere ("I hate myself and I want to die" was more than teen hyperbole), but the Rome incident notwithstanding, he wasn't dancing with death the way that, say Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Brian Jones, or Amy Winehouse did.
(Indeed, it wasn't until after his death that Rome was typically discussed as a suicide attempt. The attending physician in Rome said that it looked accidental to him, and there's no reason to doubt him. Telling stories backwards isn't always helpful, and I think in this case, Rome may turn out to be telling us less than what we first thought.)
Anyway, little of this was included in the film and quite rightly. It's not a documentary ABOUT Kurt.
The film was Kurt's voice, and this isn't something that he talked about. Certainly not regularly or at length.
-- BTW, have you seen or heard any recordings of the show from the Rome 1994 show? Un-freaking-believable. I don't think the power of the performance had anything to do with any unusual psychodrama. The band was just on fire, in those couple of years where nobody on earth could touch them. A bunch of clips, as well as the whole concert, are findable on YouTube. It was televised, and the clips are reasonable quality...and the performance is incendiary.
(It happens that my wife and I were in Italy in 1995, and came across a bootleg CD of the show at a record store in Genoa on our way to Rome. I almost started crying before we even listened to it. Fortunately, YouTube will spare you a trip to Rome, although you oughtta figure out how to go there anyway. Ain't nothin' like Rome.)
-- All of which is to underscore that the point of the movie was to hear Kurt's voice above all, and there was a lot less of it toward the end of his life....and even there, somewhat masked by his trouble with drugs, making it very difficult to discern as a warning sign. Nothing was easy or obvious about what he was going through, not then, not now.
Okay, finally got to the end. I really loved it.
Following my own rules of never docking anything for what I WISHED it was, I'm deducting a half point simply for failing to stick the landing. Through the whole movie, Brett really did a great job of giving Kurt the last word -- until he didn't!!! The last word goes to Courtney's interpretation of Rome, which, as I noted before, is hardly universally accepted.
OTHER than that, I thought the ending was perfect. Throughout, the movie's approach to time is impressionistic. Chronology isn't really that important at all. Nirvana's scale then is so hard to describe, but the film ends exactly as I remember experiencing it -- huge, huge, huger, something something Rome, that jaw-dropping "In The Pines" to end Unplugged, and then...wait, what? He's dead? wtf?
More precisely, Unplugged aired in late December 1993, Rome was March 3 1994, so maybe 10 weeks apart. In between, though, Nirvana was still the biggest band in the world, their music was ubiquitous, they were still on magazine covers, and the impact of Unplugged was overwhelming that it aired a few more times in there too. Plus a number of songs, notably "All Apologies," "About A Girl," and a remarkable cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World" -- the first time that even many Bowie fans had heard it -- were all in heavy rotation as standalone videos. As well they should have been.
And that is one thing that I'm sorry that Montage couldn't communicate. Twenty years later, Unplugged in New York is simply part of Nirvana's discography. At the time, well, look at all that punk-ish hard rock-ish feedback-laden roar, the sea of people. There were a couple of quiet tunes on their records, but really, even though Unplugged was a well-established platform by then, there was simply no way to anticipate....this, or the reaction to it, which was off the hook.
Especially when taken as a whole. The odd song choices (exactly one song had been a single before then, and it wasn't current), the covers, The Meat Puppets, the cello, the flowers, and a chance to really savor the musicianship of a band sounding so different in such a different setting -- it was startling, and it was hard to shake. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I clearly wasn't alone in this.
MTV is a punchline now, but shows like this, videos by guys like David Fincher who was on an insane role of absolutely groundbreaking videos in the early-to-mid 90s (still, I think, among his best work), and a news department taken seriously enough to merit a full sit-down with Bill Clinton in 1992 -- well, it wasn't considered a joke at all, not in the least. It was a genuine cultural force.
So you've got the biggest band in the world, people naturally turning to MTV as an actual news resource, an overwhelming outpouring of emotion...and MTV played Unplugged very nearly around the clock for a while, interspersed with news, footage of vigils, etc. -- but mostly Unplugged.
Not that MTV didn't have acres of other videos and concert footage recorded for them on other shows that they could also have played, and they probably sprinkled some in...but I swear I watched Unplugged 20 times in the next day or two. I couldn't do anything else.
And every time, ending with that howl of In The Pines. HOWL.
But before then, from the very first time we heard it, it was still ringing in our ears for days. So even though the footage from "All Apologies" was the most heartbreaking, and in the hands of a million other filmmakers (including, probably, me), that would have felt like the right ending. And it would have been a great ending.
But the narrative that KURT wrote for Unplugged ended with "In The Pines," and the next thing we knew, he was dead.
The thing is, though, in keeping with the notion that the movie is rooted in Kurt's experience of things, Unplugged really was kind of a blur. Not by any means the most important thing that had happened to him around that time, either as an individual or as a member of Nirvana. So in the context of the movie, Brett made exactly the right call. I'm just saying that somebody somewhere should tell this story properly, on a cultural scale, and not just in reference to that episode of Unplugged unto itself.
The last observation I'll make for now is that in the final interview with Kurt's mother we saw in the film, she was in profile from below, and I swear to god, I was about to say, "Wow, from that angle, it looks like Courtney has her old nose back" when the angle changed and I saw it was in fact his mother. I hit the pause button to say something to my wife, who said before I could open my mouth -- "Holy shit, she looks exactly like Courtney." It was eerie.
Actually, here's the last observation. I thought that the name Montage of Heck was needlessly artsy. Kind of annoying, frankly. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the actual montage...but the way they used it to score the later parts of the story was masterful. Amazing, and absolutely perfect. Genius filmmaking.
Anyway, with my half-point deduction on the Scott Scale, I'll call it a 9.5, with my highest recommendation, even if you don't care much about the subject at all. A nifty bit of filmmaking in any case.
Top stuff guys. Love the reviews but loved the film even more.
I really liked the ending. It felt right for the subject matter and had me thinking about how nirvana didn't do fade outs on their songs. They raged to the end and finished once their candle flickered out.
Co-owner at Pollen Studio
Awwwwwwesome insights, Tim! I loved it. It was like a documentary on the documentary!
I've enjoyed that Unplugged performance for a while now, in fact, that was probably the gateway into me listening to their regular stuff. Those Meat Puppet covers are my favorite.
Maybe I'd give the doc a slightly higher score than I originally did right after I saw it and wrote my review, because to be honest, it's stayed in my brain. And I've been listening to Nirvana more in the last week n my drives to work than I have in the past 5 years. It's hard to listen to it now, and not think of all the personal sad moments about his life.