Cobain: Montage of Heck Review / 2015

Most people are familiar with the headlines in the Kurt Cobain story. Troubled childhood, cursed with both genius and demons in equal measure who along with his band, Nirvana, was catapulted instantaneously to the very height of mainstream success and celebrity only to succumb to the allure of drug abuse at the age of just twenty seven, arguably achieving more notoriety posthumously for the archetypal rock and roll living fast and dying young motif rather than for the music he made.

Brett Morgen's Montage of Heck is an in depth and eye opening experience. Sometimes shocking and others poignant, we learn about the sensitive and soulful man behind the legend. Throughout the perfectly succinct 145 minute film, we spend time with the major players in Kurt's life.  His sister, mother, father, stepmother, ex-girlfriend, bandmate and friend Krist Novoselic and wife Courtney Love, naturally. Noticeably absent from the film is other ex-cohort and rock success story in his own right, Dave Grohl. I did ask my cinema companion at least half a dozen times, much to their delight, “is Dave actually in this?” which speaks to our fascination with the drama, the rock and roll tantrums in a story such as this which we are teased but not fully indulged with in favour of focusing on Kurt's childhood and scenes of a fledgling Nirvana and rightly so as these are far more interesting.

The documentary narrative is split between the aforementioned interviews with friends and family, archive live footage, home videos which at times feel uncomfortably intrusive and animations of extracts from Kurt's diary along with cartoon replications of events from Kurt's life. The latter reminded me of fellow fallen icon of the iconoclasts, Bill Hicks and the 2009 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story which is told through a series of cartoons playing out scenes from the late comedian's life. A clever device that delivers both pathos and vital pieces of the puzzle. The diary extract animations are macabre and frightening at times and are where we get the ultimate sense of what was occurring inside Kurt's busy mind. Underscored by defiant punk rock music, these sections really are a window into the artist and evoke that anarchic feeling. When we are treated to quieter moments in the film, it is during the interviews with friends and family. Morgen chooses to focus the camera on heartbreaking facial expressions, lingering over Kurt’s father squeezing the arm of the couch with a tense hand, framing his sister in close up as she utters the brutal truth “I’m so glad I never got that genius brain,” allowing the words to really resonate.

Montage of Heck is a brave film; it does not attempt to gloss over the more harrowing moments as Morgen knows we are smarter than that. In home video footage we see Kurt and Courtney both visibly intoxicated with their infant daughter Frances Bean.  Morgen manages to convey Kurt’s deep sadness and reckless abandon with these cherry picked clips and it is clear he is a man passionate about his subject matter and knows exactly the story he wants to tell and does so deftly. By the time stark white text on a black screen reads of Kurt’s suicide, I could have sworn I heard a collective exhaling echo through the cinema matching one you might make from stepping off a rollercoaster, having gone through this candid and bracing audio visual journey. We may not fully comprehend the self-destruction but we now understand the man.