The late, great Kurt Cobain was the ultimate lost boy: a sad, keenly intelligent man whose childhood ADHD saw him misunderstood by his family, emotionally abandoned, and then shunted around amongst relatives when none of them knew how to handle him. That experience essentially broke the young Cobain, and when he started to sing about it as an adult – and to exorcise that pain through his music – something unexpected happened: the world listened. On the back of the game-changing Nevermind album, the outsider was suddenly an idol, and the fully authorised doco, Cobain: Montage Of Heck, charts that dichotomy with an incisive sense of investigation and illumination. It’s an extraordinary cinematic portrait of a deeply complex man, and another fine work from director, Brett Morgen, whose previous docos include The Kid Stays In The Picture (about Hollywood producer, Robert Evans), Chicago 10 (about the eponymous 1968 war protestors), and Crossfire Hurricane (an exhaustive look at The Rolling Stones).
Along with new interviews and bundles of never-before-seen footage, Cobain: Montage Of Heck is threaded with Nirvana’s music, and Cobain’s voice and lyrics radiate through from first to last. But it is the last section of the movie that is the most surprising and confronting, featuring intimate home movies of Cobain with his wife and fellow rock star junkie, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances. They are tender in their humour and affection, but disturbing and sad in their depiction of the couple’s obvious drug use. “Kurt Cobain’s parents, Wendy and Ken, have seen the film,” Brett Morgen recounted at a post-screening Q&A session at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “It’s difficult for them to sit through, especially the heroin stuff. They’re very happy with 90% of the film, but they would be much happier if you didn’t see Kurt on heroin. I didn’t want to make a fantasy. When I showed Wendy the film for the first time, I said, ‘I’m so sorry – as a parent, you shouldn’t have to see this.’”
As famous for his music as he was for his drug addiction and destructively enabling relationship with Courtney Love, the needle and the damage done would always remain essential elements of the singer’s story. When combined with the fact that Cobain was using while also parenting a young daughter makes his addiction even more tragic. “Unfortunately, for the last 25 years, Kurt Cobain has represented heroin chic,” Morgen says. “But when you see Kurt and Frances, it’s not just about heroin, it’s about the struggle of being a father and handling his addictions in the same moment. It’s brutal and it’s ugly and it’s dark and you don’t want to look at it. Kurt’s sister, Kim, said to me, ‘The last thing that my brother would ever want to do is promote heroin.’ I told her, ‘I don’t think there’s a soul who would see this film and want to do heroin.’”
This is a story that we all know the ending of – in 1994, the hero suicides, at the age of just 27. There has been criticism in some quarters of Morgen’s decision to make an abrupt halt to the film, with no soothing eulogy, funeral scenes, or post-suicide wrap up. “Frances told me that her favourite part of the movie was when it cut to black,” Morgen says. “I wasn’t going to touch it after that. I know what she meant.” It’s been a long, exhausting, and emotional ride for Morgen. He’s given us a potent, honest gift with this documentary, and confesses that his personal connection to Kurt Cobain makes it a difficult project to walk away from. “It was important for Frances and for the public to stop deifying Kurt,” the director says. “If you want to wear a Kurt Cobain image on your t-shirt, I hope that you want to wear it even more after you’ve seen the film and now have a better sense of who he was. Kurt had problems like everyone else – he had more problems than everyone else – but he was fucking awesome, and he did not deserve the heat that came on him, it’s a tragedy. This is a story of a man who dies of a broken heart. It’s not a hagiography, but I love Kurt, and I’m going to miss him. During the final moments of the film, I still lose it. I know what’s going to happen, but I’ve been with him for so many years. I know it’s the end now, but I’m not really ready to say goodbye.”
When asked for his biggest revelation on going through the treasure trove of archival material that forms the backbone of Cobain: Montage Of Heck, Morgen smiles. “Kurt just wanted to have a family,” the director replies. “That was the underlying thing of his life. The big perception of Kurt all these years has been so off – that he was this whiney white male who didn’t like fame. The reality was that Kurt was always chasing those first three happy years of his life.”
Cobain: Montage Of Heck is screening as part of GOMA’s “Get What You Want: Music Cinema” programme, which runs from September 2-October 2. To buy tickets to Cobain: Montage Of Heck (which screens on Saturday September 17) click here.