Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (Review)

By on May 4, 2015


“I’m ashamed/I’m ashamed/I’m ashamed.” Floyd the Barber, Nirvana. (Bleach, 1989)

Filmmaker Brett Morgen’s (“The Kid Stays in the Picture“) compelling documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which took 8 years to make, named for a musical melange Cobain recorded on a 4-track recorder in 1988, is an intimate look at one of the most important rock icons who has ever lived. Using old super 8 film footage, Cobain’s journals, cassettes of Cobain talking about himself, Cobain’s visual art combined with interviews with those who were closest to Cobain in addition to media clips, Morgen paints a colorful portrait of a complicated and reluctant rock star who defies being defined in black and white. Skillfully and tastefully, Morgen reveals but stays out of Cobain’s story while bringing to light what motivated the tender and empathetic and yet equally angry and distancing Cobain throughout the 2 hour documentary which effectively elucidates Cobain’s ambivalence towards his own success.

From the minute the public first heard what became 1991’s grunge anthem, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,”  and its apathetic “here we are now/entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious” lyrics, a generation was transformed. Cobain, whether or not he wanted to be, was catapulted to being revered as its voice. When Nirvana’s second record, Nevermind (released September, 1991), landed on the musical landscape, it revolutionized ’90s culture with its alternative and grungy vibe and witty, cutting and mocking lyrics. With three more hit singles, Nevermind ultimately sold 30 million copies worldwide and made Kurt Cobain, a former janitor who was once homeless and living under a bridge (captured in Nirvana song “Something in the Way”), a bona fide rock star. But three years later, on April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle having committed suicide. A generation was immediately in mourning. A reluctant rock star while alive, was now, ironically, idolized as a deity upon his death.

Kurt_RH

Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

With the ending of Kurt Cobain’s story, at just 27 years of age, so deeply engraved in our psyches, it is a stark contrast to see “Montage of Heck”‘s home footage of a young Kurt Cobain, the first born grandchild on both sides of his family, smiling and blowing kisses to the camera at two years old. His mom, Wendy O’Connor, describes her young son as having been a “magnet” saying that “people just came to him.” “Bright future” are the words that would normally come to mind when you peer at this angelic looking bubbly little blond haired boy. But knowing how this story goes, it is hard to view this toddler without feeling a deep pit of sadness. With footage of a two year old Cobain at his 2nd birthday party dressed in a cardigan, images of Nirvana’s 1993 “MTV Unplugged” appearance, with Cobain cardigan wearing what became seen as his infamous cardigan come to mind.

By the time Cobain is three years old, the documentary reveals, trouble looms and the seeds of Cobain’s shame and alienation are being planted. A pediatrician examines an overly energetic Cobain and says, “We’ve got trouble here.” Cobain is given Ritalin in an attempt to quash his hyperactivity. O’Connor says that Cobain’s father, Donald Cobain, who thought children should be seen and not heard, would belittle and ridicule his son. When his parents divorce, Cobain is just nine years old. Seen as unruly and unmanageable, Cobain is carted off to live with his dad when his mom feels she can’t handle her son’s outbursts. According to Jenny, Kurt’s stepmom, Cobain longed to be with his mom and, she says, he “wanted to be the most loved.” But she says Cobain took his pain and feelings of being rejected out on the family. Ultimately, Cobain is bounced around among family members, from home to home, like a wild pinball.

But it isn’t just his home life that leaves Kurt feeling disjointed and disconnected. At school, he is being teased about his parents’ divorce. Defenseless, having not developed constructive coping skills that are cultivated in a warm and accepting environment, Cobain, feels rejected, abnormal and damaged. In Cobain’s own words, taken from 108 cassettes Morgen found in a storage locker, showing the roots of what became his witty and ironic lyrical style, “I accumulated quite a healthy complex.” By 14 years old, Cobain harbors suicidal fantasies and envisions jumping off a roof. Instead, he lies across train tracks. The oncoming train, however, proceeds to the next track sparing Cobain’s life. By 15, Kurt moves back in with his mom and his younger sister Kim says that while he seems to want a “normal” family, he fights against it.

Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

Feeling angry and alienated, and fundamentally unworthy, it is not surprising Cobain not only evolved into a rock star who had developed not just resentment, but also hatred for anything or anyone who felt phony and that he’d have a disgust for popularity including his own. His first girlfriend, Tracy Marander (written about in Nirvana song “About a Girl”), says Cobain was funny and could easily accept love, but she says that he was also very angry at his mother and afraid of getting hurt. She says he spent his days playing guitar, drawing and painting and that he wanted to be a success and not forever doomed to bar bands.

“Be careful what you wish for…”

Once Cobain is a massive success, he repeatedly says to the media, who continually try to crown Cobain king of the rock kindgdom, that his focus is the songs and not popularity. Cobain tells MTV, in Nirvana’s 120 Minutes appearance, that he simply wants to appeal to kids while saying that everyone has the same thoughts and problems. Clearly, his associations with the idea of popularity, having felt like an outcast for his entire childhood and teenage years would trigger a revulsion in being seen as what was the equivalent of being the most popular kid at school. Plus, with a background of having never fit in, it would seem that the last thing Cobain would want would be to feel separate from people looming high upon an inhumane pedestal.

Nirvana bandmate, bassist Krist Novoselic, interviewed in the documentary, says Cobain was traumatized by becoming famous so suddenly and that Cobain was so hyper-sensitive to feeling humiliated that he worked carefully on all aspects of his art and music so as to ward off being criticized which could easily set off rage in Cobain. Cobain’s mom says when he first showed up at his mother’s house with Nevermind‘s master tapes, she instantly recognized the power of Cobain’s music and worried about Cobain’s lack of resilience for his inevitable fame. She says she cautioned Cobain, saying, “This is going to change everything. You better buckle up because you are not prepared for this.”

In addition to Cobain’s inner emotional turmoil, for years he endured an inexplicable stomach ailment which often made him cough up blood while causing such excruciating pain that Cobain was reduced to feeling suicidal. And that is where Cobain’s heroin use entered the picture. Cobain’s desperate attempt at self-medicating became not only another reason for him to feel ashamed, but also thrust Cobain into a lifelong battle with addiction from which he could never extricate himself.

When Cobain meets his future wife, Courtney Love, the pair are determined to build a solid foundation that had been lacking in both of their own lives and to start a family together. Novoselic says the pair bonded seamlessly and that Love was interesting, artistic, intellectual and also did drugs. Old early ’90s footage of Cobain and Courtney Love shows a couple madly in love, high on heroin, laughing, rolling around playfully and kissing. They joke around mocking Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose and Cobain teases Love about being the most hated woman in America comparing her to Roseanne.

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

In an interview for the documentary, Love discusses Cobain’s hyper-sensitivity and reveals that the one and only time she had considered cheating on Cobain, though it was never actually articulated, Cobain knew and reacted by taking 67 doses of the tranquilizer Rohypnol landing Cobain in a coma in March, 1994.

Living in a small and messy Los Angeles apartment, with their daughter Frances Bean Cobain (born in 1992), there is a difficult scene in the documentary showing Love attempting to give their daughter a haircut while Cobain, high on heroin, is nodding off while holding his little girl. Despite his drug abuse, when it comes to his daughter, Cobain is shown as doting of a father as he could possibly be under these circumstances. He says he is determined to give Frances as much love as he can and that if anything could halt his career, it is his young daughter because he doesn’t want her to be screwed up due to his rock stardom.

Morgen, speaking at a recent Q and A in Hollywood following a screening of “Montage of Heck” says his original vision for his film changed when he met Frances Bean Cobain (co-executive producer) for the first time. He describes how she extended her hand and immediately told him that she now knows Morgen better than she knew her own father who had killed himself when Frances Bean was not even two years old.

“As soon as I met Frances, I had an audience of one.” says Morgen. “This film was made to bring a father closer to his daughter.”

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About Pamela Chelin

Pamela Chelin is a Canadian writer and entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. Pamela has written and reported for a variety of outlets including LA Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Associated Press, Village Voice, TheWrap and LA Weekly (for whom she has written 2 cover stories). Pamela has made appearances on TV shows "Good Morning, America," "Entertainment Tonight," and "BBC World TV" and radio programs on KROQ and NPR. Pamela studied psychology and linguistics as a double major at Toronto's York University before attending Osgoode Hall Law School for two years.