Has teenage angst paid off well, or is it bored and old? Adam Hofmeister takes a look at a very different and very powerful documentary.
I was only four years old when Kurt Cobain ended his life, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I discovered the music of Nirvana. During a time in which my depression and anxiety were just beginning to take over my life, Cobain’s music provided a voice to channel those demons away from myself. His music took away some of the pain, and opened me up to a wider world of sound.
Much how being told to “get a grip” has the opposite effect, having a figure who I felt understood what I was going through was actually beneficial. As I got older, my love for the music and the man grew stronger, and as sappy as it sounds, I still get choked up at the death of a person I never knew, but who managed to give me so much.
So I am ashamed that I have only just got around to seeing Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. It’s even weirder, because at this point in my life, I find myself needing Kurt’s music again – and worry not, the May 8th election results are only part of this sudden need for strength and composure.
Part of the initial apathy towards going to see Montage of Heck was that I worried about another exploitation of Cobain’s legacy. He suffered great mental and physical health difficulties throughout his life, and I feared that it would be standard rock-doc fare, or heavily glossed idolatry. Thankfully, it is neither.
Montage of Heck is not a light fare, and is uncomfortably invasive at times. The mystique of a depressed genius is torn down (sometimes in Cobain’s own words). There is private footage and diary entries that, were they my own, I would rather have burned than seen by millions. Whilst we are treated to his humour and his honesty, we are also privy to his paranoia, his manic depression, and his darkest fears.
Maybe the demolition of hero worship is a bit much for some people, but the discomfort felt throughout only added to the authenticity. I have never seen a documentary so artistically in touch with its subject matter, which is not only to Morgen’s credit, but to animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing.
Their animated sequences are absolutely stunning, the cement that binds the different eras of Cobain’s life together. With one very expository exception, these sections use mundane recordings to show the audience not a rock genius, but a man: a man who could write, and laugh, and lust, and suffer, and embarrass himself, just like any one of us. For fans, it’s shocking, for outsiders, it’s probably welcoming.
The interview sections are limited mostly to Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, both of whom are clearly aching when they speak of their loved one. There is a notable absence of Dave Grohl, which could either be out of choice, or a possible decision on behalf of Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love (the two famously despise each other). However, their words are heartfelt, and also a light into Cobain’s mind-set.
What makes Montage of Heck different to other rock-docs or biopics is that it doesn’t force a narrative. The pivotal moments in his life aren’t played up as overtly important, in a way that was parodied in the genius Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). Instead, moments end abruptly, often with no build ups. The final scene is stripped down and blunted, victorious even, rather than a drawn out and gushing ending. Anywhere else this would fail, but here, it feels like a psychological slap to the face, and it works.
Legacy wise, it’s incorrect to see Nirvana or the punk music that came before as nihilistic and apolitical. Anger and frustration channelled is never empty, and is usually directed at authority figures (what made me chuckle throughout was Cobain’s hatred for Ronald Reagan and conservatism in his sketches). One thing that is consistently levelled at depressed teenagers is their introspection. It’s almost as if mental illness is only acceptable in your formative years, and any time afterwards is selfishness.
Such conservative opinion is challenged in Montage of Heck, specifically in audio footage of a right-wing radio host blasting Cobain as a bad influence on impressionable teenagers. This small-minded approach to channelled anger fails pitifully, as the film makes it abundantly clear that Cobain’s art arose not from hormones and heavy metal, but from ongoing mental illnesses and childhood anxieties, which he used to create music that promoted an emotional freedom and empowerment.
Of course, the music is damned perfect. When we’re not being treated to the songs we love, we’re being given eerie versions that complement the bad dream aesthetic perfectly. The nightmarish feel of Montage of Heck works because between its horrors, there are moments of beauty, and tenderness. There was a bittersweet feeling when watching Cobain play at the Unplugged sessions, or being shown mucking around on the set of the Heart Shaped Box video, but it is especially poignant when he is bonding with his daughter amidst drug addiction and a prying media.
But even in death, that media isn’t finished with him. At first part of me was torn as to whether I saw an incisive and exploratory documentary, or another bucket milked from the Cobain Cash Cow. I lean towards the former now. Morgen seems to have the full blessings of Courtney Love, and Cobain’s daughter Frances, so perhaps my ingrained cynicism is unjustified. And despite my ongoing dislike for Love, she does not strike me as a “Yoko”, but rather someone who is very similar to Kurt (albeit without the warmth and wit). Nothing she offers in Montage of Heck feels self-serving, which seems like a pleasant departure from most rock-doc fare, but if you do want two hours of people bitching and backstabbing, I’d recommend the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster (2004).
So, when the credits roll and that song plays, it felt like I’d travelled full circle. I was there again, a teenage boy who had a friend in a ghost, playing the music of revolt. I walked out of the cinema, unsure of how to react. I felt the gut punch of seeing my idol brought back to life, stripped down to who he really was…and then he was gone again. But this time he wasn’t an idol; he was just a man, and therein lies the brilliance of Montage of Heck.
- Adam Hofmeister 11/05/2015