'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' and a Portrait of Agony
  • TUESDAY, APRIL 28, 2015

  • Posted by: Don Saas

I've listened to "Come As You Are" dozens of times -- possibly hundreds. Nevermind and Ten were the records of my freshman year of college. Yes, I realize I discovered grunge in the late aughts instead of the early 90s, but that's the beauty of the genre. The way it speaks to the dissatisfied and driftless is timeless. But, there was a moment in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck where it felt like I was hearing the song for the first time.

In what I assume was an unused alternate take from "Come As You Are"'s video, Kurt stares directly into the camera, his eyes dead and utterly devoid of emotion, singing as he slowly bashes his head against the wall. Sandwiched in between tales of Kurt's spiraling heroin addiction and his growing unease with the press's portrayal of the Nevermind tour, it's a haunting snapshot of Kurt's emotional misery. How could anyone who was there not have read the writing etched into every line of Kurt's face? But, as with many moment's in Montage of Heck, I can't decide if that's genuine insight to be wrested away from the film or 20 years worth of projecting creeping its way into my viewing.

Kurt Cobain took his own life on April 5th, 1994 at the age of 27. That was 21 years ago, and for the last two decades, his fans -- whether it's the teenagers at heart who are now entering middle age that fell in love with his music when he was around or the teenagers who are just discovering Nirvana now -- have wondered why. Kurt's drug abuse and struggles with fame are well-documented, but those have always felt like surface examinations of the true trauma in Kurt's life. If Montage of Heck never quite answers the question of why Kurt Cobain committed suicide, it remains an often paralyzing portrait of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the cost of living a life where all of your insecurities and fears are placed squarely in the spotlight.

I suspect that Montage of Heck will become a film embraced for all of the wrong reasons. As the first "authorized" biography of Kurt Cobain, the film represents an unprecedented level of access to Kurt's life beyond Nirvana. Kurt had an obsessive need to record the details of his life, and the director, Brett Morgen, combed through Kurt's enormous collection of personal video & audio recordings. And the film's least focused moments dwell in the minutiae of Kurt's life and upbringing -- playing with his first guitar, drawing endlessly while living with his pre-fame girlfriend, goofing around with Krist Novoselic & Dave Grohl -- whereas the meat of the film peers into the roots of and continual escalation of Kurt Cobain's depression.

It's understandable that Brett Morgen didn't want to make a film that was all doom & gloom. There's an undeniable playful side to Kurt Cobain at his best, and it's heartbreaking to think about the sort of works he could have created if he hadn't battled depression and alienation his entire life. But the film's dedication to personal ephemera and disruptive animated interludes belies a lack of confidence in the film's clear mission statement: where did Kurt's pain come from.

When the film zeroes in on Kurt's emotional abuse at the hands of his parents -- his relationship with his father has the clear markings of neglect and the subsequent PTSD that haunted him the rest of his life -- or his sexual shame in high school or his existential dread of ridicule and not being liked, Montage of Heck holds you in a suffocating vice grip. During the best of the animated sequences, you hear a personal spoken-word diary as young Kurt Cobain discusses discovering weed and his first attempts at having sex and one of his first suicide attempts. As I heard the casual ease with which Kurt dismissed his failure to place bricks on his chest and let a train run him over, I felt my chest tightening, and I could hardly breathe.

The argument could be made that having his emotional anguish aired in theaters across the country (and on HBO who produced the documentary) is the opposite of what Kurt would have ever wanted. But there's a power to these confessions. Kurt's social anxiety over feeling ridiculed and thought poorly of is universal, and for those -- myself included -- who suffer from that same dread to the degree that you can get sick to your stomach just wondering why others don't understand or appreciate or respect you, it's affirming (if not necessarily reassuring) to see that you aren't alone. If Montage of Heck convinces just one person with clinical anxiety/depression to seek help before they hurt themselves because they see themselves in Kurt's tragedy, then any robbing of Kurt's privacy feels like a worthy price to pay.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is not a Nirvana documentary -- the total lack of interview footage of Dave Grohl would be even more unforgivable had that been the case -- and as a biography of Kurt Cobain, it's lack of focus can be downright aggravating. But as a portrait of the ultimately fatal hurt that consumed one of the great artists of the last twenty years, it's impossible to escape Montage of Heck's grip.


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