Sundance 2015 Review: KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK, The Man Behind The Music And The Mania
I say this not to denigrate the millions of fans who feel this band is the generation-defining band of the 1990s, but merely to state as fact - I'm no fan of Kurt Cobain, and yet I adored Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (hereinafter Cobain).
Music docs often can merely preach to the converted, doing little more than provide a general overview of a person's career peppered with a few talking head interviews. There are great concert docs - Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense or Gimme Shelter, as examples - that provide enormous insight into the music while documenting an exceptional performance. There seem to be fewer great films about musicians that don't have the performances do the heavy lifting, films that are as insightful and penetrating as any laudable documentary so that the love of music doesn't cloud the quality of the narrative.
To its credit, Cobain doesn't take for granted the deification of Kurt. In the best way, this is a film about an individual that's shown to be compelling beyond the songs, a story of loneliness and rebellion that's perfectly in keeping with the lyrical content for which he is most associated. This is story of a troubled kid who struggled with depression and intoxicants, but also one who found solace experimenting with his guitar and his tape recording, making soudscapes or mixtapes (dubbed on one a "Montage of Heck") that exposes both his raw talent and his stoner immaturity.
We travel via home movies, audio recordings, and interviews with close members of his family and band from Kurt's earliest childhood right through to his rise to be the frontman of a band that for a brief period conquered the charts. What makes Brett Morgen's film exceptional, however, is how these normal documentary elements are interwoven with spectacular animated sequences.
Morgen's previous film, The Kid Stays in the Picture, helped revolutionize the use of motion graphics and parallax to bring still photography to life in documentary, a visual style that has been much copied since that film's success. It's hard to say, but Cobain may represent another jump. Beautiful and haunting animation that looks like a mix of hand-drawn and rotoscoped give life to stories recorded on tape as well as some of the hundreds of hours of recordings Kurt made for his own amusement. Some stories, such as his apparent relationship with a developmentally-challenged woman, are presented with a somber and sober palate, a kind of visual confessional as Cobain's voice tells his own tale.
The other major animated portion involves the copious scrawlings that Kurt made in a myriad of spiral-bound notebooks. Through extremely clever techniques, these images and words quite literally come off the page, the letters and doodles wrestling for relevance on crowded pages filled with disjointed ideas. Journal entries are buttressed by spiral sketches, while pregnant babies and monsters jostle in the margins.
It's a brief moment, but in one of these montage moments we see a swastika. It's one among dozens of provocative images, and clearly one of those things that an anti-establishment kid looking to be a shit disturber would do out of boredom. Yet it's telling that this was left in, as it and so much of the film hardly makes Cobain a more sympathetic character for his detractors. In many ways we're getting a warts-and-all portrayal, a musical maverick and a sociopathic junkie, all facets that help to craft a complex vision of the man.
The soundtrack mixes Nirvana performances with some lovely orchestral and choral renditions of his songs, interludes that do wonders to showcase the melodic sophistication behind the bombast. We hear a scratchy recording of Kurt singing a Beatles tune to his wife Courtney Love, and share in some of their most intimate moments with both each other and their newborn child.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic provides context for living through Nirvana-mania, and he provides much needed context for that aspect. Dave Grohl is a noticeable absence, and his inclusion at the very least would stop those from wondering why he's chosen not to appear and perhaps fueling even more rumours and counterrumours that have erupted since Kurt shot himself. At the screening, Morgen mentioned that he recently shot a conversation with Grohl, and I believe that his inclusion in the film, even one that's a story of Kurt rather than a history of Nirvana, is still very much warranted.
Yes, the film is likely a bit too long for those impatient with the tale, but I believe that any of the more obvious cuts, including many of those moments of quiet and intimacy, would do the film an injustice. The work is scattershot at times, jumping in time and place with a rawness that's at times frustrating yet compelling, not dissimilar to the way that Kurt's music jumps from quiet to loud. It's these manic shifts in mood of his music that are reflected in his own life, and the film's stylization mirrors these jumps beautifully.
As a biographical documentation of Cobain's life, and the forces that helped shape his music and his emotional being, Cobain can be considered definitive. It also happens to be a film that is so exquisitely crafted that it's to be celebrated as well for its numerous technical merits.
The word "Nirvana" means to "blow out", like extinguishing a candle. It's a way of achieving illumination by seeking liberation from what grounds us, for seeking solace from delusion and desire. Cobain's transcendence as an artist in popular culture is partly attributable to what some consider a martyrdom to his depression, while others more sanguine see it as an irresponsible act of cowardice that left a baby fatherless. Whatever one's judgement and whatever the reasons for Cobain's ascendance to myth, there was a man behind the music and the mania, and Cobain does a job the way few others have at documenting with such complexity and sophistication.
Years in the making, the film is a clear labour of love that never feels like it lost sight of the need to tell a story miles away from hagiography. Morgen has captured in a uniquely sophisticated and effective way a spirit of Kurt Cobain that does justice to the complexities and contradictions that he evokes.
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