At SXSW last month, Brett Morgen got right to the point as he introduced his new documentary about Kurt Cobain, who died 21 years ago this past Sunday: “I know a lot of you have been waiting over 20 years to see some of this footage,” he told over 1,000 people at Austin’s Paramount Theatre. “So let’s just start the fucking movie.”
I was one of the Nirvana obsessives he was talking about. After the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed my life, I collected a good 200 concert bootlegs in hopes that some between-song banter here or some intentionally mangled lyrics there would help me understand more about a man who remained somewhat of a mystery behind all of his progressive, punk-rock posturing in interviews.
Little did I know that in a storage facility in California, Courtney Love was keeping “the real treasure find,” as Morgen called it: 200 hours of Kurt’s audio tapes, most of which “had never been listened to.”
Those tapes, along with excerpts from over 4,000 pages of his writing, have been weaved into Montage of Heck, which will play again this month at Tribeca Film Festival (complete with a q&a with Courtney) and then make its HBO premiere May 4. The title is taken from a sound collage Cobain made circa 1988, snippets of which appear in the film along with home videos, personal audio recordings, concert and interview footage, and animated versions of his artwork and journal entries.
“Out of necessity, about 85 percent of what we hear and see in the film is rare or never seen material,” Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) said during the post-screening q&a at SXSW. But don’t get your hopes up for previously unreleased music: aside from a home recording of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” most of the songs that appear in the film have already been released.
What’s new here is, for starters, the footage of a young Cobain provided by his mother Wendy, who was interviewed for the film along with his father Don, sister Kim, ex-girlfriend Tracy, and bandmate Krist Novoselic. (Dave Grohl wasn’t interviewed because the timing didn’t work out.) There’s adorable video of Kurt strumming a toy guitar sometime around the age of two, tossing a stuffed animal on the ground as if it was a Fender Jaguar, and hyperactively throwing himself on the ground as he would eventually do into so many drum sets.
Morgen used those home videos “out of necessity,” he said, because his film was “meant to be as intimate as humanly possible,” and because it aimed to tell a story different from the one we’ve heard so many times about the rock god who described himself in his suicide note as “the sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man.”
“The story that came clear to me was not that his quest in life was to be a rock star and that when he got to be a rock star he didn’t want to live anymore,” Morgen said. “It felt to me like it was a family origin story and that it was in many ways a journey to try to reclaim his first couple years — and [he was] doing it with the band, doing it with Tracy and ultimately doing it with Courtney and Frances.”
To bolster that case, Morgen shows Cobain first as a joyful, affectionate child whose mother was, she says, “head over heals in love” with him.
But Wendy wasn’t quite as smitten with her husband, and divorced Don when Kurt was nine – which is where it all started to fall apart.
“This felt really personal,” Morgen said of the story. “It felt very much [like] a film about my generation which was Kurt’s generation (he’s a year older than me) and a very specific time in America. If Kurt’s parents met five years later they probably wouldn’t have gotten married and if they’d met five years earlier they might’ve never gotten divorced.”
When the couple did get divorced, “it just embarrassed him to death,” his mother says in the film.
Don still seems shellshocked as he (barely) talks on screen about Kurt’s troubled adolescence. His ex-wife says Don was “one of those people who thought children should be seen and not heard. He belittled and ridiculed Kurt, and Kurt would be shamed.”
Kurt began acting out not just among the relatives he got pawned off on when his mom couldn’t handle him anymore, but also in school. One of the audio gems Morgen unearthed, if you’re a Melvins fan, is an interview Kurt did with Buzz Osborne, in which they talk about how much they related to the film Over the Edge.
“I wanted to be a vandal and I wanted to hold everyone captive in the school,” a stoned-seeming Cobain tells King Buzzo, later adding, “I quit the last two months of school. I was so withdrawn by that time and I was so antisocial that I was almost insane.”
Perhaps the most fascinating and unsettling audio nugget, reenacted via animation, is Cobain reading a version of this journal entry about losing his virginity to a “very fat,” “quiet and illiterate” girl and then trying to kill himself after being mocked as a “retard fucker” by classmates.
Most of those recordings, Morgen revealed, were created during his days in Olympia, Washington, where he lived with (and off of) his girlfriend Tracy Marender. In the film, Tracy talks about how Kurt was “afraid of getting hurt” – something that comes up again when Novoselic describes Kurt’s reaction to an early review that compared Nirvana to “Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares.”
“Kurt was really hurt with that,” he says, later adding, “Kurt hated being humiliated – he hated it, he hated it. If he ever thought he was humiliated, then you’d see the rage come out.”
That surfaces again in the film’s final moments, when Courtney describes the time “he took 67 Rohypnols and ended up in a coma because I thought about cheating on him.” (She’s careful to insist she didn’t actually go through with it, contrary to rumors floated in Nick Broomfield’s controversial unauthorized documentary, Kurt & Courtney).
If you’re one of the people who blame Kurt’s death on his relationship with Courtney, her first appearance in the film is likely to elicit a cringe, as will the painful-to-watch footage of the couple acting like zonked out junkies and her admission, in an interview, that “I did do heroin when I was pregnant, and then I stopped.” Amidst the surprisingly intimate home video footage (Courtney even flashes her boobs at one point), there’s a funny scene in which Courtney reads hate mail about herself while Kurt mimicks her behind her back. But in general the footage is disturbing rather than amusing: “Stop it, Kurt,” Courtney says as Cobain nods off with his infant in his hands. “You don’t want our daughter seeing you behaving like this, on drugs.” (Actually, Frances Bean Cobain was an executive producer of the film.)
Kurt was ashamed of his drug use, according to his mom: “I asked him if he was at the stage where he was addicted to the needle prick and he burst into tears,” she says. But he could also be defiant and angry, as evidenced by a phone recording in which, contrary to the feminist leanings that influenced so many of his fans, he calls a biographer a “parasitic little fucking cunt.” “I’m at the end of my ropes,” he threatens Victoria Clarke in the disturbing message. “I’ve never been more fucking serious in my life.”
It’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to Nirvana – though it was a thrill to see the remaining members reunite for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. But this film choked me up in the same way Boyhood did. By the time Kurt Cobain took his life, he was, more than anything, a symbol of depression and alienation and his suicide was the ultimate manifestation of the angst that made him a comfort to so many disaffected teenagers. But this film reminds us that he was more than a dorm-room poster – he was also a real person with a family that cared about him. A previous documentary, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, tried to make that point by matching recordings of interviews done for the Nirvana bio Come As You Are with images of everyday folks and scenes in contemporary Aberdeen and Seattle. But those visuals, compared to the primary material shown in Montage of Heck, come off like an awkward karaoke video.
Even with the participation of his family, one has to wonder whether Kurt — who, according to Novoselic, tightly controlled Nirvana’s image and output because he feared humiliation so much — would’ve been comfortable with such an intimate portrayal.
The answer may lie in one of his notebooks: “Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” Cobain wrote. And then, two lines down: “When you wake up, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.”