Production Company: Universal Pictures in conjunction with HBO Documentaries
Starring: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, the Cobain family, and Tracy Marander
Director: Brett Morgen
Running Time: 132 Minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Air date: Monday, May 4, 2015 on HBO.
There are people in this world who have left a lasting impression long after their death — John Lennon, James Dean, Ernest Hemingway, etc. These people become immortal through their work and their accomplishments throughout their lives. One of these iconic figures who affected the world following his tragic suicide is Kurt Cobain. The king of grunge, Cobain was one of the pivotal artists who changed the music industry in the 90s, influencing millions. But now, nearly 20 years after his death, we are privy to a film that digs deep into the mind of Cobain, showing us an exquisite look at a tortured artist. Whether or not you are a fan of the band Nirvana, there is something everyone can enjoy in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is the first documentary about Cobain made with the cooperation of his family. The film is named after a very fitting musical composition Cobain created in 1988. Through a mesh of Cobain’s journal entries, unreleased home movies, recordings, songbooks, demos, unheard songs, artwork, photography, and Nirvana performances, the audience is treated to a compelling documentary that reveals the progression of Cobain’s life. From a happy child to a disturbed, lonely soul who created art only an obsessive, dismal mind can make, the documentary doesn’t pull any punches.
Talk about a personal film — the things we learn about Cobain surpasses anything even the most fanatic of fans have knowledge of, and the film displays them in an impressive way. The main thing making this documentary stand out is its approach to the material. Most documentaries like to use old footage and interviews to tell a story about the subject matter (like American Hardcore and Foo Fighters: Back and Forth); with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the audience gets more than just the same ol’ same ol’. What I remember most are the personal materials used in the film, particularly Kurt’s intimate journal entries, artwork, and home videos. Viewers get to explore and understand what was going on in Cobain’s mind, instead of just listening to interviews with people who knew him, and watching concert paparazzi footage on YouTube. When people talk about someone else, there is always something missing due to the interviewee’s interpretation of events. In the end, it becomes mere speculation. But seeing firsthand works and archives make it easy to see the evidence of what Cobain was actually feeling and thinking. Very little gets lost with the opinions of others. With this approach, it brings more to the documentary’s theme and overall concept.
The basis of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is to see how Cobain’s talent stemmed from the sadness he went through during his life, and how it became his ultimate downfall. Director Brett Morgen shows us the price of having a dark mind like Cobain’s, which brought about the edgy songs that appealed to the masses. But how do you make this assortment of recordings, videos, artwork and journals entries interesting? Reading journal entries and looking at artwork can get dreary during a film, even if you put great music behind it (which this movie totally has). I don’t want to sit down and watch a documentary that feels like a slide show. One thing that helps tremendously is the animation, which not only assist with filling in the gaps in Cobain’s life, but also has quite an impact. Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing do an amazing job of creating computer graphics that are both realistic and believable. This has to be the biggest highlight of the film. There are times during the film where I felt as if I were sitting at a window watching Cobain live his life. It is easy to picture the intimate stories Cobain tells about his childhood, showing his angst and the erratic personality that eventually brought about his demise. I felt Cobain’s pain even more when watching the animated segments, which make the film that much more appealing.
A word of warning to anyone pregnant or with a weak heart; this film may cause health complications. The movie is very jarring and intense at times. Part of the title Montage of Heck, hits the nail on the head; the film is essentially one big montage of an eccentric person’s mind. Throughout the documentary, a large portion of the film is reminiscent of a 90s music video on acid (not much different than what Alex (Malcolm McDowell) was forced to watch in A Clockwork Orange when they were adjusting his brain). It is a necessary addition to the film so the audience can experience what it feels like to be inside Cobain’s mind; however, it might be too much for some people to see. If truth be told, I could’ve lived without some of the home videos of Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love. There’s a time in the movie where we see Cobain and Love living out their lazy, heroine filled, insane lives. It is like watching a real life version of the film Sid and Nancy. The footage itself is important because Love was an important person in Cobain’s life. She influenced many of his actions from the time he met her until the day he died. Although the film is over two hours long, it could have easily been reduced by simply cutting some of those parts out of the film. We do see some fabulous scenes with Courtney and Kurt when their daughter Frances is born; the love Kurt had for his adorable baby is extremely heartwarming. Other than that, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck really drags during those parts of the film.
Just so you know, this is a story about an extremely depressed individual who happened to become famous. If you’re looking for a film about the story of Nirvana, or the rise and fall of grunge, you won’t get that with this documentary. When Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck gets to the point when Cobain makes it into the music industry, I was a little surprised. How does a person with this many issues get to be so famous? How does this lazy, embittered man have the ambition and drive to make great music? Director Morgen does a great job in that regard. He makes it so the audience sees Cobain as a person and not just a rock god. I was so detached from what I knew about Cobain, I was able to enjoy the film as if I were being introduced to a person I knew nothing about. Although, Morgen doesn’t hide Cobain’s genius. I saw how talented Cobain was from the live shows, and the song from the Nirvana albums used as the soundtrack. There are also some wonderful renditions of Nirvana’s songs by different artists that set the mood perfectly during the depressive and happy parts of the film. As a matter of fact, Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ somber version of “Smells Like Team Spirit” is so perfect in the film, I can’t say enough about it. More to the point, Morgen deserves any and all accolades he receives for this film with the amount of details and clever ways he tells this legend’s story.
If you want to know what kind of person Cobain was, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck shows you more than you may want to know. It’s gritty, heartbreaking, motivating, and extreme. It is a harsh glimpse of the pressures of being an iconic superstar, making you realize these figures who have changed our world are just regular people in the end. If you decide to watch it, beware; you’re probably going to outplay your dusty record of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album for a full week afterwards.
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© 2015, Nick Polizzi. All rights reserved.
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