Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck has been dubbed in some quarters as the definitive word on the life and death of Kurt Cobain. But what can be termed ‘definitive’ when weighed against a figure – an icon – whose cultural cache is still sky high even two decades after his death?
And yet, Morgen’s colorful, affecting and deeply personal blend of music, past and present analysis, illustrations and candid – at times painful – footage looks set to become the benchmark by which all other Cobain dredgers will be judged. The wealth of information, footage and access granted to Morgen by the Cobain family (or indeed estate, as it became the moment the trigger was pulled) is the foundation upon which this searing documentary rests.
Montage Of Heck doesn’t allow an independent narrative voice to take hold and pepper the film with opinion and half-truths; it simply lets the actions, words and illustrations of Cobain to weave the web.
Kurt’s troubled childhood – divorced parents, vandalism, petty crime, shunted from one family member to another – isn’t explained away by socio-economic twaddle about the death of the American Dream and the nuclear family. The grainy hiss of the Cobain family spool shows Kurt on the peripheral at family events; eyes wide and alert, looking to engage in either fight or flight. For a man whose words inspired so many, it’s the body language that proves the most powerful element of all.
The home recordings of primitive Nirvana tracks – a muddled version of Breed, Scoff blasted out at speed and volume to an audience of two – become more than just songs within the context of the film. They are products of the blue-eyed boy who penned his anger and confusion onto the page and fretboard.
Present day perspective is provided primarily by two central characters in The Kurt Cobain Tragedy: Nirvana bassist and childhood friend Krist Novoselic and everybody’s favorite Wicked Witch of the West, Courtney Love. Novoselic looks on the verge of tears at all times as he recalls the eccentric and destructive teenager morph into global megastar and finally into the downcast, unpredictable and drug scourged pariah.
Love, as ever, remains a decisive figure by virtue of her existence. Together she and Kurt took the John and Yoko ideal into the blood-soaked realms of Sid and Nancy. Cobain’s six month ‘disappearance’ – retreating into a hovel with Love to indulge in the needle and the damage done – is harrowing. Husband and wife are glassy-eyed, thin and covered in spots and sores. The press buzzes with reports that Love indulged in heroin throughout the pregnancy of daughter Frances Bean. Welcome to the quick and painful descent.
There’s something to behold – a gaping realization – in which we eventually come to watch Kurt, strung out and on the nod, trying to balance his baby daughter on his knee while Love tries to cut her hair. A dystopian approximation of the family unit.
Kurt’s final slide towards an untimely and tragically young death is meshed in with dissonant howls of feedback, yelps, cries and fevered drawings that come to life on the screen before you. It could well be one of the finest visual representations of a life gone to mad yet committed to film.
Nirvana’s two last genuine movements as a trio are stark in their contrast. Their final studio LP, In Utero, is a maze of noise and diseased lyricism (deemed ‘commercial suicide’ by their label… ain’t hindsight a funny thing?). Not much later, a subdued and down-at-heart Kurt – cardigan on to hide the track marks on his arms – pours what he has left into All Apologies for their historic Unplugged performance.
But for all of the laughs, shocks and even tears we’re led to the inevitable conclusion. Cobain, at 27, went and joined, as his mother puts it, “that stupid club.” Montage Of Heck is the clearest image yet of one drawn many times before. Cobain found his Leonard Cohen afterworld in the end. The rest of us sighed eternally.