It’s the darnedest thing with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. I can see that it’s a good documentary, but I have no idea what it wants to do or where it wants to go. It latches on to the biographical details as a red thread, and everything in it – the music, the drawings, the puppets and statues – is by, or at least featuring, Kurt Cobain. A bio-pic would feature a lot more interviews. Ok, so maybe it’s all about Kurt Cobain as an artist. Hardcore Nirvana fans will appreciate that, but all others must be warned: Cobain’s artwork is as uncompromising as his music. Since the movie is 130 minutes long, that means a lot of monsters. I grew slightly tired of exploding entrails and erected penises.
The excerpts from his diaries are more interesting. There are songlines, thoughts, directions, to-do lists and ideas that bring you very close to what he thought was important to him at the time. Together with all the newspaper snippets in the second half of the movie, MoH gives you a lot to read. My eyes started to grow tired. Maybe reading the actual published diaries would be easier. The interview bits are moderately interesting, but kept to an absolute minimum – how else can you explain the absence of Dave Grohl? Wendy O’Connor talks about how she caught her son using heroin. Courtney Love goes on about how she is sure that taking heroin while pregnant didn’t affect Frances Bean in the slightest.
The movie does two things very right: it doesn’t play the intro from Smells Like Teen Spirit until it’s called for, and it doesn’t glorify anything, especially not Cobain’s suicide. This is not a hagiography, and neither does it feel the need to push Cobain off his pedestal. There never was a pedestal. Montage of Heck shows his childhood, his teen years with some beautifully animated scenes, then his first concerts with Nirvana. The rest is history. What’s probably new are the home movies with him, Courtney and baby Frances. My feeling is that they are so intimate that they shouldn’t have been publicized.
Ah, the music. It hasn’t aged. The most fascinating scenes contain Kurt Cobain doing what he does best: playing his stuff. Throwing around his guitar and crashing into the drum kit gets old very fast, but there are moments on stage when Cobain seems almost happy. Other moments show his despair: during boring interviews, and on stage, overwhelmed by his own success. He stubbornly denied being the spokesperson for anyone or anything, only to be asked how it felt to be the mouthpiece of a lost generation. Together with his stomach problems and heroin addiction, it’s a miracle he found the inspiration to write his songs.
I can very well live without his drawings, but want to have a look at the written bits of his diaries. What MoH has done to me is that it has rekindled my love for the music. It’s immediately accessible and listener-friendly. You have to remind yourself that many of the songs are driven by bilious self-loathing. Cobain knew how to write a song better than anyone. Most bands can count themselves lucky having two or three great songs. Nirvana’s discography is surprisingly short, but there are at least a dozen songs that have become part of rock music DNA. There is an energy that is unique to Nirvana’s songs. They seemed to be able to perpetuate themselves. I hope Kurt Cobain realized that.