Cobain: Montage of Heck – 2015
Written and Directed by Brett Morgen
Starring Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt Novoselic
Animation by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing
In the history of musicians given too much importance after an untimely death, Kurt Cobain ranks somewhere between John Lennon and Jim Morrison. His disaffected youth angle added to the narrative written about the kids referred to as Generation X by the press of the early 90’s. That he took his own life was about as surprising as the end of a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game. That he’s become such an icon in the time since has much to do with how seriously teenagers take their lives before they take responsibility for it. That’s to say too seriously when it comes to drama, and not seriously enough when it comes to how to make their own happiness.
To this point, there has been no more complete collage of imagery about his whirlwind of a life and career. This is undoubtedly due to the endorsement and support of his wife Courtney. She is littered throughout the documentary, trying to seem like she is dispensing wisdom when her words show that the hard years have given her little of it.
“His fantasy was to get to three million dollars and then become a junkie.”
Before we get to her, we get to meet his parents. His mother, who looks a lot like a younger version of Love, reminisces about how happy he was when they were younger, and how it all turned to shit once his mother took the song Is That All There Is? literally and divorced his father.
Then when we get to his father, it is interesting to see how he grips the arm of his sofa as his second wife describes how Kurt tortured and hurt his step siblings and half-brother. For all of those who say Kurt was misunderstood, those two seem to have a pretty good grip on what he was like.
It’s at this time we hear Kurt’s rendition of his group of friends that he hated, but nonetheless stayed with because they were a source of drugs and alcohol. The latter came from a variety of sources, including the home of a mentally slow, fat girl whom they took turns distracting while the others would go downstairs, steal a bottle of hard liquor and then escape out the back door.
Later, when Kurt decided he wasn’t going to die (even then he was drawn to suicide) without having sex, he went to visit the girl alone. He didn’t like the smell and could not figure out what to do, so he took off and saved that special moment for another willing woman with low self-esteem.
It’s at this point we meet that woman in Tracy Marander, whom he lived with up to the point of hitting it big with Nirvana. She talks lovingly about their time together, insisting that while she was out working, he would often stay home and get high. But he was also being creative at that time, according to Marander. One guesses he would have to have been, considering the music that came next. According to Cobain, though, he wrote the entire album Nevermind while driving to the studio to record it.
Up to this point, there are several scenes involving the animation of Nadalman and Hulsing which are meant to show Cobain in his simpler, drug-addled period. As hard as they try to make him sympathetic in times like when he is in the kitchen, watching but not actually seeing his “friends” work over the mentally slow girl, his actions later belie that image. Still, the animation is effective when matched with moments of the real “Montage of Heck” recordings he made before hitting it big.
Throughout the film, Novoselic makes many appearances looking confused, as if searching for words to make it all seem more meaningful as he sits in his comfortable manse supplied by the gravy train he lucked into. It’s interesting to see these moments contrast with the younger version of the bassist, hammering his way through interviews saying whatever came to his seemingly vacant expanse of a mind when asked to explain the success of the group. As he jabbers incessant non-sense with occasional and equally meaningless input from a younger Dave Grohl, we see the truest self of Cobain. He had nothing to say to the media.
One could even conclude he had little to say period beyond his meager musical output. After all, if one takes Love’s line about the 3 million dollar goal into account, it seems pretty consistent with the goals of an addict. Not a lot of explaining to do. Just roll another number.
Then he met Love, and the world hated her as much as he was infatuated with her. That she is a tough sell is obvious to anyone who listens to her speak. She is that person at the party who has mastered everything you’ve ever done and brags she did it while she was high. But of course she’s sober now. Roll another number.
We get to see a few images of the youngish couple rolling around in varying states of sobriety. She likes to show her unspectacular breasts a lot, and he likes to slouch more than a bit. Maybe it’s because he’s not alright.
There is a concerted effort to show that he was suffering from medical issues, including stomach ailments. While the movie inundates with images internal stomach organs plowing away, they seem to pile on the sympathy without working too hard to figure out that it could be all the drugs, or maybe the things one snacks on while consuming them that may lead to his discomfort.
But this discomfort made him creative, they say, as if they are using that word to defend some truth about their hero that cannot be overlooked. However creative he was, it did not seem to be more than the noodling done by any of a variety of half-sober teenagers one comes across in life. One could even surmise that Swastika that showed up there for a second was just a phase of a half-sober mind. Nothing in the rest of his life showed that he ever agreed with older white men at all.
It’s easy to picture his father as the recipient of all of his homicidal pictures and “comics.” A particular favorite is the one where the baby kicks through not only his mother’s womb, but the racist, bigoted and angry father who insists the kid not be a worthless girl.
Somewhere after Nevermind and its subsequent tour, he took time off to marry Love, get high and decide to have a baby. Much is made about a seemingly fictitious article in Vanity Fair about Love and Cobain continuing their heroin habit into the pregnancy. Though we see many angry words and writings about it, the images we see and even Love herself don’t deny this.
Instead, we move right on into young Frances Bean’s babyhood. This should be the most beautiful time of the movie. And it is not without its heartfelt moments. Sadness pervades though, because it becomes clear that Cobain is a much different person sober than he is on drugs. The latter person disappears for a short time. Soon enough that monster comes back with full force, right about the time the followup album is released and they begin to support it.
For those who have read Cobain’s suicide note, it’s pretty clear that he had hated touring, interviewing and basically pretending to like humans for a while. Where the real person represented and the drugs overtook him is tough to tell, but it’s pretty clear in watching Montage of Heck that Cobain was a toxic mess who really did not value life as much as others did. Whether it was the money he made them that they valued or the person himself is not made clear here. It’s really not the point, though. The film does a good job of selling the image of the tortured artist except for when you see the interviewed stammer for words to describe him beyond “creative.” It should be easier after all of this time. Maybe they could have had Kurt Loder do it for them.
There is plenty here that goes some distance to show at least visually that Cobain’s was a wasted heroic figure. Others will buy into a myth that is hard imagining that Cobain would believe himself. His sacrifice explains their current lack of life goals. From the cheerleader with the anarchy “A” on her shirt, to the idiots protesting literally nothing in Seattle yesterday, Cobain has given many of the people he grew ashamed of being part of reasons to keep being stupid.
There is one moment of clarity, however, near the end, that resonates. He’s either high or “tired” and holding on to Frances for her first hair cut. It’s not even clear that he understands what is happening, but he is holding her gently as he struggles to keep his head up. Doing so, we hear him start to hum to her Manah Manah by The Muppets. This brings to mind Courtney Love’s attempt to sue the makers of The Muppets for their remake of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Something tells me if Kurt were alive he would have been okay with their version, and by now would prefer it to his own. I know I do. “Mee Mee Mee Moo Moo” indeed.
(***1/2 out of *****)