Diary of a Mad Man: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

A beautiful—warts and all—look at the public and private life of modern rock’s most visceral voice.

There are a lot of blemishes in the new, fascinating documentary on Kurt Cobain—pimples, actually. There’s some vomit, too, and spit, and Courtney Love naked; like life, it’s sad, messy, and exhilarating. For Cobain, it was all a little too much, and the loneliness and humiliation was more than he could bear; yet, that sadness produced the most empathetic, revelatory music our own messy lives have ever heard. Cobain was a loner, yet his aloneness brought us together: together at Nirvana shows, where thousands gathered; together in couples transfixed by the sounds coming from the stereo; together at makeshift memorials after he ended it all with a shotgun blast. Brett Morgen’s film gets all that, but the telling takes its pound of flesh. As Cobain’s mother says to him after first hearing an early pressing of Nevermind, the band’s thirty-million-selling breakthrough album, “You better buckle up, because you are not ready for this.”

Initially, the prospect of the over-two-hour film is daunting. We already know that things won’t end well, and probably won’t start out that well, either, but Morgen uses a number of techniques that propel the story forward. First, there are the home movies—faded 8 mm footage of the Cobain family enjoying life in rural Aberdeen, Washington, during the early ’70s logging boom. They look like everyone’s home movies—birthday parties for the kids, snappy outfits on Mom and Dad. Later, we see an altogether different kind of home movie as Kurt and Courtney mime (or not) junk sickness while attempting to act like normal parents; a scene where their wobbly hands take a pair of scissors to daughter Frances Bean’s infant hair is as tense as any horror flick.


Second are animated sequences showing a teenage Cobain growing through adolescence. Nicely drawn, they rise to sublime verite by the fact that the subject himself narrates them. To hear Cobain’s voice walk us through his struggles with family life, utter joy at discovering marijuana, a pathetic and failed attempt to lose his virginity to a local developmentally challenged girl, and, finally, the beginnings of playing in a band, is akin, for those of us so enamored, to finding an original copy of Sub Pop 200 at the local flea market.

And then, there are the live performances. As pop music—may as well call it that, there isn’t much rock and roll left—has chugged along since the mid ’90s, it’s possible to have forgotten what a completely cathartic experience a Nirvana show was. Backed by the steamroller rhythm section of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, Cobain eviscerated his demons in a sonic barrage of blood-curdling screams, distorted feedback, and some of the most memorable melodies ever assembled. To listen, again, to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is to shake one’s head in wonder.

Montage Of Heck ends as it starts, with a POV shot from the stage at one of the band’s last festival shows. Kurt looks done in, but the fans are rabid; they want what they came for and Nirvana delivers. Try as he did, Cobain couldn’t save himself, but in the process he saved a little bit of rock and roll—and he saved us all. FL


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