With the potential to be the most revealing film about former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck ends up becoming a competent celebration of the legend rather than an insightful reinterpretation of it.
With the potential to be the most revealing and insightful documentary about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Brett Morgen’s film is nonetheless an uneven and sanitised version of the troubled musician’s short but significant life. Morgen’s access to Cobain’s catalogue of notes, journals, lyrics and audio recordings (both of the music and verbal diary kind) is unprecedented, painting a picture of a disaffected youth whose anger and fears both inspired an almost uncontrollable creative appetite as well as a need to destructively self-medicate. But despite our intimate portrait of Cobain, his image is no different here from what has been documented before.
Indeed, while the film’s most interesting segments are the private home videos shot by Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, there is a sense she, as a key influencer on the film’s production, is only reinforcing the image of a “great love affair”, or at least the version she wants people to remember. The volatility of their relationship is never investigated or discussed, with Love ensuring she’s more a muse than a menace.
It’s certainly competently made. A brilliant use of animation visualises some of Cobain’s personal voice recordings while the exhaustive array of interviews (including Cobain’s mother, father, stepmother and sister, Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic, his former girlfriend Tracey Marander, and Courtney Love herself) is impressive. Originally scored music by Jeff Danna inspired by Nirvana’s best-loved songs alongside concert highlights, including Nirvana’s heartbreaking unplugged version of All Apologies from 1993, also examples the band’s most impressive and memorable work.
As an appraisal of a rock legend, it works, but still feels like a missed opportunity (the absence of Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is a notable hole). For instance, a dissection of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, whose life mimicked Cobain’s in many ways without the same success or notoriety and who, in similarly tragic fashion lost his life in his 20s leaving a girlfriend and baby daughter, would have interested me far more than this.
It’s understandable that the family (Cobain and Love’s only child Frances is an executive producer on the film) want to celebrate the life of their widely adored but flawed genius without drumming up the dirty laundry that still enigmatically lingers. It’s just the revelations in Cobain: Montage of Heck reinforce our understanding of the man – the legend – rather than inspire reinterpretation of what really made him tick.