Like Jim Morrison before him, Kurt Cobain exists in a dorm-room-poster afterlife, sanctified by fans, many of whom were born after his suicide in April 1994 and who flock to his recordings with the certainty that the music of Nirvana speaks directly to them. To its eternal credit, the music does.
While the rest of us get older, Cobain is forever 27 and still terribly, ruinously (and, almost certainly, clinically) depressed. Beyond that, the questions still nag: Was it the drugs? Was he born sad? Was it Don and Wendy Cobain’s divorce when Kurt was a boy? Was it his marriage to the tumultuous Courtney Love? Was it the pressure of fame? Was it corporate rock? Was it creative despair? Was it Seattle?
Biographers and filmmakers have gone over it and over it with varying results, but Brett Morgen’s rich and achingly artful documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (premiering Monday on HBO), puts an end to those questions — not by definitively answering them, but by redirecting the focus on how Nirvana’s tragic frontman came into this world, how he was artistically and emotionally wired, and what kind of person he was before and after success. From this comes the only real answer: He needed help, and he didn’t get it.
“With 20/20 hindsight, you think, ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ or ‘I should have said something,’ ” says Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, one of the many interviewees in “Montage of Heck” who once more — and with the benefit of time — open up some deep hurt for this telling, which is being billed as “fully authorized.”
As Novoselic notes and as “Montage of Heck” evinces, Cobain’s struggles were “plain as day — it’s all right there,” spelled out in song lyrics and in Cobain’s obvious discomfort with attention and praise. Cobain also “hated being humiliated,” Novoselic says, recalling the singer’s reaction to Nirvana’s first negative review. “He was also very careful and stubborn about the way the art and the work was presented. I could be humiliated, but not Kurt. No.”
Cobain’s sister, Kim, remembers how her brother’s mind was constantly churning and working when they were kids: “I guess I’m not all that special,” she says she realized. “But as I grew up, I’m so glad I never got that genius brain.”
In the summer of 1991, at his mother’s house in Aberdeen, Wash., Cobain played her a tape of the finished tracks of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album: “I almost started crying,” she says. “Not from happiness but from fear. I said, ‘This is going to change everything.’ And then I said [to Kurt], ‘You better buckle up, because you are not ready for this.’ ”
Besides an inevitable sense of doom, one of the more striking aspects of “Montage of Heck” is the palpable distance it measures between now and the early 1990s — it might be longer ago than you think. (And it all happened so much faster than it seemed at the time, once you consider that the entirety of Nirvana’s superfame lasted a mere 31 months.)
Back then, there was something romantic to the public nature of Cobain’s downward spiral. With considerable and authentic angst, he presented himself as a wounded soul and simultaneously loathed himself for it. In a present context, it’s difficult to imagine his friends, family and associates allowing someone so fragile (and successful) to self-destruct in front of our eyes. Then again, people do it all the time, famous or not. The film seems likewise resigned to the fact that Cobain’s talent and depression were inextricably twined.
“Montage of Heck” (the title refers to a cassette tape “sound collage” Cobain made in 1988) is more a feat of access than of inquiry, as Morgen was granted permission to hunt through Cobain’s papers, home movies and videos, drawings, spiral-notebook journals, photographs and rare recordings in order to present a full picture of the man’s life.
Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt and Courtney’s 22-year-old daughter, is credited as an executive producer; although she is not interviewed, her presence is felt here and there. The last hour of the film, chronicling the making of the 1993 “In Utero” album and a triumphant “Unplugged” concert for MTV, coincides with Frances’s infancy and offers some of the only joy to be found here, in the form of playful home videos taken by her mother and father.
At more than two hours in length, “Montage of Heck” can’t help but have a Christmas-morning quality to it: Here is more material we’ve not yet seen or heard, chronologically displayed like the treasure trove it is. Most of it is of an intensely personal nature, with the noble (if unfulfilled) goal of becoming the definitive account.
Nirvana fans will find themselves needing to watch “Montage of Heck” more than once. The first time is to simply admire the care with which Morgen melds sound and image and reflections, very nearly bringing the Nirvana days back in vivid form. A stray clip of “MTV News” with Tabitha Soren is therefore as striking as the notebooks filling up with Cobain’s thoughts, poetry and rage at public perception.
Nirvana detested doing media, Cobain especially. His attitude is refreshingly counterintuitive and a good reminder of what it once meant to be an uncooperative and testy rock star rather than a 24/7 publicity hound; it helps that Morgen picks so many clips in which reporters ask Cobain and his bandmates the dumbest questions imaginable.
The first viewing also makes it possible to at last sense some closure on the era — not only how it sounded, but how it felt. Time to say goodbye, at last, to the deep, reflexive antipathy for one’s self and society at large; goodbye to the manufactured resentment, because where does it get you? “Montage of Heck” shines a little light in some very dark corners; in fleeting moments, it’s a celebratory affair.
The second viewing, naturally, is the sadder and more nitpicky one — and also the one where the most knowledgeable Nirvana fans will realize they haven’t learned much that they didn’t already know. The movie is lovely to look at, from towheaded toddler Kurt romping about in home movies (his hyperactivity led a doctor to advise Wendy to dose her son with Ritalin, after which “he went off the rails”) to the way Morgen has brought Cobain’s drawings to life in animation sequences.
But it still seems as if we’re missing a complete picture — or worse yet, that no complete picture exists.
What explains the absence here of Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who, after “Sonic Highways,” shouldn’t be in the habit of declining to participate in projects that are headed for HBO? Grohl certainly had nothing to fear here, except the loss of some spotlight. And what does Frances Bean have to say? I couldn’t help but feel that we still need to hear from her on the subject of the father she never really knew. And why end the movie with the fact of the suicide, but not the details of it, the impact of it, the lingering disputes because of it? Why lay so much of it out there and then take back a couple of key pieces?
“Montage of Heck” never guaranteed a full catharsis, but it’s not the category-killer Nirvana fans thought it would be. On the subject of the life and death of Kurt Cobain there is still some work to be done, but “Montage of Heck” may be as close as we’ll get to moving on.
(132 minutes) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.