The number of words written about the life (and more specifically the death) of Kurt Cobain are innumerable. Equally several documentaries have tried to explore both the young man from Aberdeen, Washington and the band he fronted (Nirvana, as if you didn’t know) in the years since 1994, but few have been in any way satisfactory.
In Montage of Heck, director Brett Morgen takes a slightly different angle on things. Gone is any speculation and largely gone is the view of Kurt as a rock ‘n’ roll mega-star (though in some of the interviews, particularly with his mother and wife this does sneak in) leaving us with the story of Cobain’s life as if he was any other person.
It just happens this person’s life involves being dubbed ‘the voice of a disaffected generation’, headlining Reading Festival and releasing one of the defining albums of the 1990s.
If you’ve read Charles R. Cross’ biography, Heavier Than Heaven, or any of the other writings about Cobain, the general story won’t be that surprising, but what Morgen manages to do is bring this to life in a way I’ve not seen before.
Using a mix of archive video (a lot shot by Kurt and his companions), animation (often based on Kurt’s own artwork), archive interviews with Kurt and newly recorded interviews with his friends and relations, Morgen paints a vivid picture of a troubled, ultimately tragic, life in a way that doesn’t paint Cobain as anything but a man.
This delivery is, for the two-hour and twelve-minute running time, intense and raw, particularly in the early scenes that are the least obviously documented aspects of Cobain’s life – his time growing up in Aberdeen.
With archive footage of the snowy town and some great animations Cobain’s early years are painted as troubled and, for want of a better word, ‘dark’.
On top of this we get candid interviews with his mother, father and stepmother that really don’t hold back – with his stepmother coming across as the most analytical and his father still seeming as distant as he is described by Kurt.
As the film continues things get loud and don’t rarely let up, save for a few sequences following the birth of Kurt and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances that actually have some genuinely cute and touching moments, before the inevitable ending. Though, in once again doing something a bit different, Morgen doesn’t dwell on Cobain’s already well-documented death.
While there are some great snippets of live footage and input from Krist Novoselic, if you’re looking for a complete look at Nirvana this isn’t the film for you.
As a documentary Montage of Heck came as close as any to evoking something of the style of Julien Temple, while also having something of Morgen’s own, particularly in the soundtrack, that sheds new light on a well covered story and really brings to life the story of Kurt Donald Cobain in a genuinely intense way without ever succumbing to the standard telling that makes him into some kind of martyr for a generation.
and, just because, one of my favourite (from a list of many) Nirvana moments: