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SXSW Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Saturday 21 March 2015
Words Ailis Mara

We’ve all grown up with the story of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, so much so that the notion of what seems like another documentary appears to be unnecessary. Montage of Heck is unlikely to tell a Nirvana fan anything new (although you will see plenty of unseen material) but what it does do is try to do tell Cobain’s story in his own words. This new documentary uses Cobain’s art, music, journals and recordings to get a first hand account of the man, his work, his relationships and more so how he felt about himself and how these led to his tragic end. Friend and band mate Krist Novoselic (now looking much like someone’s chilled out Dad), says early on how now in hindsight it is so clear how troubled a man Kurt was. Novoselic’s regret at not helping more is there plain to see on his face in this early moment.

Novoselic’s comment sets the tone for Montage of Heck (this title is taken from one of Kurt’s own mixtapes). What follows is the story of Kurt’s life starting from the perspective of his young mother (which is also a fascinating look at suburban America in the boom years following WW2) to his disillusionment in his teens, to discovering punk rock, to forming Nirvana, becoming world famous, slipping into heroin and then becoming a father. Every stage of Kurt’s life has seemingly been recorded in the process, be it through old super 8 home movies and then Kurt’s own extensive work of journals, audio recordings, paintings and home video.

Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture) was given unprecedented access to all this archive by Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean (who is also Executive Producer), to Morgan’s credit he utilises this footage to great affect, without falling back too much to taking heads (the only people interviewed specially for the film were Kurt’s family and closest friends, although notably there is no new interview with Dave Grohl). This results in Kurt’s voice being ever present and prominent in this film through the archive material. The story Morgan weaves together is that of a man’s journey and further descent through mental illness. About a man who throughout his whole life has struggled to reconcile his feelings about the world and his art, be it through his home life, fame, or bigger picture ‘life’ stuff. This makes for a fascinating but ultimately tragic narrative. Novoselic’s comments about he couldn’t see how bad Cobain was at the time is a painful reminder of this tragedy, as for us, now with hindsight, it so clear that he was a deeply ill and troubled man.

In and around this personal case study though is the constant reminder of how great Cobain and Nirvana’s music was and still is. Morgan had full use of the Nirvana back catalogue and live footage and weaves it all in perfectly and let’s the songs play out as long as they need to create the full effect. You will be wanting to dig out all your favourite Nirvana tracks after seeing this.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is certainly a bitter sweet experience. Kurt Cobain still holds a profound grip on the world and his fans, his music will live on for many years to come and there is great victory in that and celebration of that in this film, but this is what makes this tragedy all the tougher to swallow. We’ll never know what Cobain would have thought of a film like this being made about him. Despite the wealth of archive it is still just a snapshot of a man. Morgen chose to tell one narrative with it, a narrative which is perfectly executed, but is this the one that sums up the real man? We will never know.