The tragedy of Kurt Cobain’s life was perfect, as if he was born and suffered and created and died to become the broken boy genius at the center of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Hell, the title of the gut-wrenching new documentary is cribbed from one of his teenage mixtapes, a preemptive epitaph of his own devising. Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s only kid, executive produced the film as clear-eyed deconsecration of her dad, and it takes us alongside Cobain during his patently normal youth, his teenage social derailment, his short-lived professional highs and personal lows. Montage of Heck plunders a wealth of home movies, TV interviews and other video footage, not to mention Cobain’s copious journals and private demo tapes, to arrive at an unprecedentedly intimate portrayal of Cobain as a confounding, complex human being. And yet by the end of the movie he remains a post-modern martyr beyond the rigors of reassessment.
There’s more to the movie than what you see on-screen: It is but another step in the immutable iconizing of Cobain and a reflection of how we choose to understand our most cherished stories. No amount of truth-bombing will alter a masterpiece painted two decades ago; no amount of history will weaken the impact of Nirvana’s music. The band is frozen in the amber of suicide nostalgia, like Havisham’s clocks eternally stuck to the moment of trauma. As beautiful and repulsive as Cobain appears in this film, it merely burnishes all our death-worship of the rock star archetype. The music-doc format itself is canonizing. Accurate or not, that’s the way we want to keep it.
And how the burnishing captivates! The volume of visual footage of Cobain’s life is astonishing, as if some omniscient cultural force began preproduction on this film 40 years ago. What regular person has so much video of their earliest childhood moments? Cobain’s coming of age paralleled the decreasing cost and rising accessibility of video-recording equipment; by his teenage years, many middle-class families had a VHS camera in their home. Cobain himself used one incessantly. We see and hear footage of his earliest friends, his first band rehearsals, first gigs—no talking heads necessary.
And Cobain’s family was indeed middle-class. He spent his early life in a seemingly healthy environment—”my kids loved that town,” his mom says of Aberdeen. But like a lot of middle-class kids, Cobain was prescribed Ritalin at an early age, and shortly after that his artistic and self-destructive inclinations began to merge. Within a few years he went from good, weird kid to family pariah, rejected by his mother, father and grandparents because of his abusive behavior. Cobain had the opportunity for a regular life—”He wanted the family thing. But also he didn’t,” says Tracy Marander, his first girlfriend. But something dark—chemical imbalance, weak family bonds, unrequited punk-rock angst—kept it beyond his grasp.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” arrived at the early-’90s apex of MTV’s influence, and from then on Cobain was never far from a camera (more fodder for the filmmaker). Montage of Heck‘s most striking revelation comes from this era, when Cobain explains his unwavering ambition: “We actually wanna become more successful so we can have a comfortable life,” he tells an interviewer. The film later cites a 1994 Rolling Stone interview that paraphrased Cobain in grunge parlance: “Success doesn’t suck.” Pages taken from his journals reveal handwritten guitar tablatures and copious to-do lists, suggesting Cobain took his role as bandleader seriously. All this effort from the supposed Saint of the Slackers. He cared about the acceptance of his art—he needed approval—more than anyone supposed.
Some of director Brett Morgen’s use of animation to realize conjectured scenes from Cobain’s life reads as too liberal with the facts. The string-quartet versions of Nirvana songs play as too maudlin. Did the litany of pre-Nirvana band names Morgen illustrates actually exist or is that scene extrapolation? Both tactics are a sort of emotional blackmail, enhancing the narrative beyond what the film needs and casting doubt on Morgen’s objectivity.
When Courtney Love enters the story Cobain was already deep into heroin, but Love instigated a feedback loop between the two of them that Morgen not-so-subtly intimates accelerated Cobain’s decline. Footage of the pair in deeply fucked-up states—”I’m not on fucking drugs! I’m tired,” Cobain says, holding Frances Bean in his lap—goes on long enough to become gratuitous, uncomfortable. As magnetic as Cobain was at his prime, he’s difficult to watch.
The movie’s last half-hour plays out with rapidly escalating morbidity. Glimpses of Frances are more disturbing knowing the fate in store; the music gets more manic and more desperate. In 1992, Nirvana headlined Reading Festival in front of 60,000 people. In 1993, In Utero debuted at Number 1. But what was going on in Cobain’s head? It’s all under control, he writes in his journal. I don’t need any help. And his mom: “Every week it got worse.”
In the movie’s final scenes—including Nirvana’s unforgettable MTV Unplugged performance—Cobain appears remarkably handsome and relatively healthy. They’re a twisted presage to the end we know is coming. Watching these last minutes play out, drawn to the drama, reveling in the music, feels like posthumous enabling. Which is the one thing Cobain—fragile, driven, starved for approval—never needed in his life. Montage of Heck left me skeptical of the value of we put on great art in late-stage America. No way it’s worth the cost of making it. Maybe less-great art is more sustainable.