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Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck turns the myth into the man

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This is not your rock n’ roll messiah

I still remember the exact moment I learned Kurt Cobain had killed himself. A friend stood in the doorway of my college dorm room, face slack, and said two words: "Kurt died." And over the ensuing days and months the machinery of pop culture churned, desperately trying to put his death into some sort of relatable context.

With Cobain in particular, the pieces were already in place for instant deification. A child of divorce, known for being empathetic to a fault, reluctantly drawn into a world of fame he never wanted and driven to drug abuse by a stomach ailment that only heroin could cure. It was a tragic narrative, but comforting in its familiarity, and passing murder conspiracy theories aside we’ve pretty much stuck with it for the last 20 years.

Brett Morgen’s arresting Sundance documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck changes that. Pulling from a treasure trove of unreleased audio, video, photos, and journal entries, it’s a whirlwind trip through the life and mind of the musician that holds nothing back. It’s loud. It’s aggressive. And it will make you hate Cobain at times.

A stylistic mash-up of archival footage, interviews, and animated sequences

"My movies tend to try to become an embodiment of the subject," Morgen said in a post screening Q&A, and to achieve that goal the filmmaker uses a stylistic mash-up of archival footage, interviews, and extended animation sequences. In home movies, a young Cobain — cherubic and smiling at his first birthday parties — transforms into a sullen, disconnected teen as his parents divorce and he’s shuttled from family member to family member. Donald Cobain, sharing the same shocking light eyes as his son, grips the arm of a sofa as he struggles to talk about him, demonstrating in a single moment the meager emotional support he must have provided Kurt during childhood.

Morgen takes the audience further by using audio recordings from Cobain — in one sequence, Cobain recounts what appears to be a teenaged suicide attempt on a set of railroad tracks — and brings them to life as animated sequences. It lends the movie a trippy intimacy, but the film really leans into the surreal when it comes to Cobain’s journals and artwork. With Courtney Love and Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean both supporting the project, Morgen had access to the musician’s entire archive of material, and the film turns his paintings, drawings, and scribblings into full-motion kinetic sequences that serve as a direct line into Cobain’s own sense of self. If you’re familiar with his work at all, there’s something undeniably visceral about seeing the cover of Incesticide come to life, or the familiar scrawl of Cobain’s handwriting pouring out onto the page.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck promotional still (HBO)

But despite the audio-visual invention of those sequences, the first half of Montage of Heck remains quite conventional in covering the well-trod ground we’re already familiar with. It even takes the mythologizing a step further, presenting the completion of Nirvana’s breakout record Nevermind as an operatic tragedy, complete with choral backing and the idea the Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor preternaturally saw the downfall that was to come.

Kurt and Courtney fawn over each other in domestic junkie bliss

That’s when the film shifts, however, giving us another side of Cobain entirely. Montage of Heck delves unflinchingly into Cobain’s relationship with Courtney Love — and with heroin. Home video footage shows the couple hanging around their grungy home, naked and kissing, wrapped up in domestic junkie bliss. According to Morgen, Love simply handed over the keys to a storage facility full of Cobain-related material and let him use whatever he found without interference, and it shows in the intensely intimate nature of the footage.

It’s awkward and uncomfortable to watch at times, particularly as Cobain continues to spiral even after the birth of his daughter, but it’s not all morbid. There’s a love and tenderness between the two, and Cobain is so charismatic that watching him talk shit about Soundgarden and Guns N’ Roses to his wife is undeniably hilarious. But it also reveals an astounding amount of self-consciousness and insecurity, a point that the film drives home again and again: despite his enormous talent, Cobain was a thin-skinned man who was incapable of taking criticism or critique of any sort.

Despite his talent, Cobain was incapable of taking criticism or critique

If I’m totally honest, I had a hard time buying Cobain’s reluctant rock star pose back in the day. His will-he, won’t-he relationship with stardom seemed confused at best; showing up on the cover of Rolling Stone with a handmade t-shirt reading "Corporate magazines still suck" is a great gag, but you’re still on the cover of Rolling Stone. And despite the protestations about stardom, Cobain was clearly driven to be as good as he could be: Montage of Heck shows off some early journal entries where he broke down the budget for his band and sets forth the kind of rehearsal schedule they’ll need to succeed.

He was both the rock star and the sensitive recluse

What Morgen’s movie makes clear is that he was actually both those things: the driven artist who enjoyed playing to massive crowds, and the one who hid away and distanced himself to avoid hurtful negative feedback. Like all of us, a person in constant conflict with certain aspects of himself — and so in denial that he refused to acknowledge he was high even while nodding off in the middle of his daughter getting a haircut. (That last scene hasn’t left my mind since I saw the movie; it’s harrowing and horrible, and letting it be shown is an act of bravery on both Love and Frances Bean Cobain’s part.)

"We really felt we wanted the film to be raw," Morgen said after the screening. "We wanted it to be unflinching, and we didn’t want to make Kurt into a saint. But this film is made with a tremendous amount of love." Morgen’s strange, wonderful, audio-visual assault accomplishes all of that, and it does something much harder than the usual routine of taking a dead rock star and making them mythic. Instead it takes an icon, and makes him all too human.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will debut May 4th in the US on HBO.