THE DOCUMENTARY "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"
WHEN|WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Brett Morgen's much-anticipated bio of Nirvana frontman Cobain -- who committed suicide at age 27 in 1994 -- literally begins at the beginning (there's a shot of Cobain's baby feet on his birth certificate). Family members and at least one band member (Krist Novoselic) are interviewed extensively, and wife Courtney Love has a few reminiscences, too. The picture that emerges here is as expected -- of a grim, hard, drug-addled life -- but there are a few surprises.
MY SAY Twenty-one years after his death, Cobain's brief life has gone almost completely out of focus. A cautionary haze lingers (don't do drugs, kids). An archetypal one does, too -- fast rock-and-roll life, tragic death -- while Kurt and Courtney are now mostly seen as a Gen X Sid and Nancy. To Morgen's credit, he brings Cobain sharply back into focus, and then some.
But "montage" absolutely is the right word here. Handed by Love (see below) what appears to have been every sketch, doodle, scrawl, letter or home movie that Cobain ever produced, Morgen wants to use them all and apparently does. This is far more than a generous compilation but a two-hour fast-cut that attempts to reassemble a fractured mind from its own filings.
There are virtues and drawbacks to this approach, as you might imagine. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a doodle just a doodle -- a time killer apropos of nothing. But Morgen sees significance in every scratch or scribble, although many -- admittedly -- are a grim foreshadow of what was to come. Meanwhile, Cobain's home movies often have the narrative sweep and grandeur of your own. There he is coochy-cooing the baby, or canoodling with Love. (Yawn . . . envision critic checking his watch.) A few of them add what seems like hours to this enterprise.
But the virtues are considerable. Morgen and his editors have simply done a remarkable job -- also an artful one -- in piecing together this residuum. Best are some brilliant 3-D animation sequences by Dutch animator Hisko Hulsing that reveal Cobain in his quieter or darker moments.
Do you know Cobain after all of this? Yes. You also know Morgen and his artistic idiosyncrasies.
One gripe: Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl is not interviewed. This is a major no-show, of course, but I'll bet there's an interesting story behind it.
THE STORY BEHIND 'MONTAGE OF HECK'
Film director Brett Morgen -- whose new documentary, "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck," debuts on HBO Monday night -- recently brought his movie to a place he compared to "the Roman Colosseum": Seattle.
"As soon as I walked into the theater, some woman came up to me, looked right through me and said, 'Y'know, I'm a friend of Kurt's,' " Morgen said. "And this is before the movie even started. I said, 'OK, this is going to be interesting.' "
Interesting for several reasons. Before his suicide in 1994, Cobain and his band, Nirvana, were the most successful, globally recognized and even iconic figures to spring from Seattle's pop music scene, the spawning ground of "grunge." But Cobain represented other things, too, for a lot of people, including the alienation, disillusionment and musically accented rage of a generation.
As a consequence, Morgen -- who was given access to Cobain's papers, tapes, paintings, drawings and Super 8 home movies by Cobain's widow, Courtney Love -- is being subjected to a lot more scrutiny than most documentary filmmakers.
"I was supposed to just do a moderated thing without questions from the audience," he said of his Seattle Film Festival appearance. The film company was nervous. "But I said to myself as I'm walking on the stage, 'That's ridiculous. Why am I here?' So I started engaging with the audience. And there were some fiery comments. But I feel, with this film especially, there's a great need for transparency."
Because "Montage" was made with both Love's approval and that of daughter Frances Bean Cobain, the movie might arouse suggestions of whitewash: It does portray a Love-Cobain relationship far more complex and affectionate than what much of the post-mortem press implied -- that Love had Svengali-ed a fragile Cobain, or was somehow responsible for his suicide, and/or had manipulated the film into a love letter to herself (this, of course, from fans who haven't yet seen the movie).
"I thought she'd hate the film," Morgen said of Love, who gave him access to, among other things, 200 hours of audiocassette recordings, which the director calls the core of the film. "I know in my mind what happened, but the authorship of the film is of critical importance to the fans, so it is my obligation to answer any questions about that."
"Montage" has gotten generally rave reviews, from the establishment press as well as the online music world. "The definitive Cobain documentary," said Justin Gerber on the site Consequence of Sound. "There is nowhere else to go from here." Morgen is also one of the more adventurous tinkerers with the nonfiction format, his work including the fight film "On the Ropes"; the Robert Evans story, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," made entirely from its subjects' point of view (both were codirected with Nanette Burstein); and "Chicago 10," a largely animated documentary based on transcripts of the notorious Chicago 8 trial (which followed the violence-marred Democratic convention of 1968). And "Crossfire Hurricane," an unconventional portrait of the Rolling Stones.
"He's a madman, but he's a genius," said Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. "He inserts himself inside the character, whether it's 'Crossfire Hurricane' or 'The Kid Stays in the Picture' or 'Montage of Heck.' He becomes a different filmmaker with each film."
How Love came to Morgen was strange.
"We met at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel," he said. "She told me she'd just been coming out of a very dark time in her life and was living in this loft in New York. She'd been heavily medicated, no furniture, she said she was sleeping in a tent or something and all she had was a TV, a DVD player and two movies -- 'The Kid Stays in the Picture' and the Gina Gershon movie 'Prey for Rock and Roll.' She said she watched 'Kid' every day for three months and loved the way I treated photo animation."
This was in 2007. It took a little while to get the picture made. (As Love told the audience following the "Montage" premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, "There was a tsunami of [expletive] and most of it was my fault.") The material was overwhelming. "The whole world knew Kurt as the lead singer of Nirvana," Morgen said, "but he was really this prolific artist and Courtney had all this art and didn't know what to do with it.
"She said, 'I have terrible taste in boyfriends but great taste in filmmakers.' Whatever that means."
In making the film -- and listening to those 200 hours of audio, and trying to be faithful to the Cobain aesthetic -- Morgen ran into a tsunami of source material.
"There were 4,000 journal pages; I think we used all the paintings in some form. The audio, we barely scratched the surface of that. And with the home video, there was not a lot of footage. That was one of the difficult things -- there was such limited cinema verite or observational footage of Kurt, it's shocking."
Cobain had never been the subject of a documentary, nor made any kind of a movie. There was concert footage and promotional outtakes, but very little that was informal and/or very revealing.
"About halfway through the edit, Eric Erlandson, the guitarist from Courtney's band, Hole, called us up and said, 'I found this tape, I don't know what's on it, but it might be some Kurt and Courtney footage,' " Morgen recalled. "We got a High 8 deck and watched it and what was there turned out to be some of the most revealing in the film, in terms of their dynamic as a couple and, to a large extent, in revealing Kurt's humor."
- John Anderson