When news broke on April 8, 1994, that Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, the announcement was shocking yet not entirely unexpected. Reports of Cobain’s struggles with drug addiction and depression had circulated widely, including a damning piece in Vanity Fair that claimed his wife Courtney Love had shot up heroin while pregnant with their daughter, Frances. Although Cobain was only 27 when he died and Nirvana had released only three albums, his impact on the music industry and American pop culture was much larger than such a modest body of work might suggest. Cobain was, as many have written, the last true American rock star.
Countless books, documentaries and even a feature film (Gus Van Sant’s Last Days) have recounted Cobain’s life and death, but none has done it with the intimacy and creativity of Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Borrowing its title from a mix tape Cobain compiled as a teenager, the film, made with the cooperation of his widow, family and former bandmates, remains compelling and moving no matter how familiar you already are with the singer’s story.
Morgen begins at the start, with Cobain’s childhood. He was a bright, likable and happy kid who his mother Wendy says was magnetic from the start. As seen in home movies and photographs, Cobain was wildly energetic and something of a ham, but as he grew up, his restlessness became a problem, one that was exacerbated by medications such as Ritalin. After his parents divorced, Cobain became so unruly his mother shipped him off to live with his father, who had remarried. But Cobain continued to act up, playing increasingly mean tricks on his step-siblings (in one of the drawings he made while a kid, he depicted an angry Charlie Brown asphyxiating Snoopy with his leash). He began to bounce around among the homes of his uncles and aunts, but no one could tolerate him.
Via beautifully animated sequences that reenact events Cobain wrote about in his journals, we see the boy grow into a depressed teenager with suicidal thoughts, no friends and a lack of self-esteem brought on by constant rejection. Montage of Heck spends nearly an hour recounting Cobain’s life before he formed Nirvana with his friends, so by the time the group released its first album and exploded into international stardom, we understand the effect such constant attention and media exposure had on the troubled singer.
Interviews with Love, guitarist Krist Novoselic and Cobain’s first girlfriend, Tracy Marander, keep the film’s tone personal and focused (Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, now lead singer for the Foo Fighters, is the only no-show, although he did consent to the use of old footage in which he appears). There’s a bit too much video of the six months in which Cobain and Love holed up in an apartment to do drugs and clown around — the squalor and drug-induced tomfoolery is unpleasant — and the film ends before his death, addressing his suicide with a title card that leaves you wishing Morgen had spent a few minutes on its aftermath. But with a score that uses orchestral arrangements of Nirvana’s songs, plus plentiful concert footage, Montage of Heck celebrates the man’s formidable talent and accomplishments, makes you wonder how much better he might have become if he had lived longer, and illuminates the demons that sometimes stalk the stars who shine brightest.
With: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic, Wendy O’ Connor, Don Cobain, Tracy Marander.
Writer-director: Brett Morgen.
An HBO Documentaries release. Running time: 132 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, drug use, adult themes, graphic imagery. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.